(Photo: Antony Njuguna/Reuters /Landov)
Did you know that if you apply or are recertified for food stamps, Medicare or any other form of public assistance, the agency where you submit your application is required to also offer you the opportunity to register to vote? Well, if employees at several public assistance agencies in Louisiana know that, they’re not complying with the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the motor-voter bill. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Project Vote and a local attorney are suing the state for allegedly disenfranchising minority and low-income voters.
In many states, said Dale Ho, assistant counsel at LDF, public assistance agencies are often the only places where low-income and minority residents can register to vote, particularly if they don’t have driver’s licenses. It’s “vitally important” that agencies in Louisiana comply with the law to ensure that people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina whose voter registrations may have been erroneously canceled are reinstated, he said. Ho also pointed to unprecedentedly high voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election and said it probably would have been higher if the agencies were doing their jobs.
According to Nicole Zeitler, director of public agency voter registration at Project Vote, Louisiana’s public assistance agencies collected only 8,688 voter registration applications in 2007-2008, an 88 percent decline since 1995 despite a spike in participation in public assistance programs. By comparison, other states like Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee were registering between 10,000-15,000 per month, Zeitler said.
In surveys conducted for several months by telephone and in person as people left various public assistance agencies, the organizations consistently found that no voter registration materials had been offered. In November 2010, for example, only one of 32 people reported being asked during their office visit if they’d like to register to vote.
A number of employees at various agencies in several parishes confirmed that they hadn’t raised the issue. Staff at one parish office said, “No, ma’am, we don’t do that. You need to go to Motor Vehicles.” At another, a staff member said, “No, this is not a register-to-vote office.”
“Registration at public assistance agencies is important for reaching populations that are less likely to register through other means, including low-income residents, minorities and persons with disabilities,” Zeitler said. “By ignoring this vital law, Louisiana is denying this right to thousands of its residents each year.”
The complainants’ efforts to work with the secretary of state’s office to find a solution were unsuccessful, but they hope the lawsuit will produce a different result. Similar lawsuits in other states have produced “tremendous increases in voter registration numbers,” they say.