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Louisiana Defaulting on Federal Obligation to Register Low-Income Residents

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1/12/11

Project Vote and NAACP Legal Defense Fund Put Secretary of State Tom Schedler on Notice of Voting Rights Violations

 BATON ROUGE, LA – Citing clear evidence that numerous low-income Louisiana residents have been denied the opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from Project Vote, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), and New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson, have issued official notice to Secretary of State Tom Schedler, the state's Department of Children & Family Services, and its Department of Health & Hospitals regarding the state’s non-compliance with the federal requirements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).  

 The notification letter, sent today on behalf of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP, calls on Schedler and the agencies to take corrective action necessary to bring Louisiana into compliance with federal law. The NVRA requires public assistance agencies that provide services to low-income residents, to offer voter registration services to their clients. The letter cites evidence showing that agencies around the state are failing to fully carry forth their responsibilities under the law.

 “The National Voter Registration Act was designed to ensure that all citizens have access to our democracy,” said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel with LDF’s Political Participation Group. “By defaulting on its obligations under the law, Louisiana is denying substantial numbers of eligible low-income and minority voters equal access to the ballot box,” said Ho.

 The evidence cited includes Election Assistance Commission reports, which show that registrations originating from Louisiana public assistance offices have plummeted 88 percent since the law was first implemented: from nearly 75,000 in 1995-1996, to a mere 8,688 in 2007-2008.

 "It is clear that Louisiana is violating the NVRA, and neglecting tens of thousands of low-income residents as a result," said Nicole Zeitler, Director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote.

 Recent surveys of agency offices confirm that the state is defaulting on its federally required obligations. Agencies are required to offer the opportunity to register to vote along with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction. However, numerous individuals reported that they had not been offered the opportunity to register to vote while receiving services from the agencies. The surveys also revealed that agency staff and personnel at many offices around the state were wholly unfamiliar with their obligations under the NVRA, and a number of the offices failed to make voter registration application forms available altogether.

 "The agency can't comply with a law requiring distribution of voter registration applications if they don't even have the forms on hand,” said Zeitler.

 In the past several years, lawsuits filed by Project Vote and other groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008. More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there in the end of 2009.

 The letter’s signatories are eager to work with state officials to bring the state into compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all Louisianans have an equal opportunity to register to vote.

Read the full letter here.

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The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. is America's premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans. LDF also defends the gains and protections won over the past 70 years of civil rights struggle and works to improve the quality and diversity of judicial and executive appointments.

Project Vote is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities. Project Vote takes a leadership role in nationwide voting rights and election administration issues, working through research, legal services, and advocacy to ensure that our constituencies are not prevented from registering and voting.