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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Partially Upholds Challenge to Louisiana’s Administration of National Voter Registration Act

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Scott, et al. v. Schedler, et al., issued a ruling partially upholding a district court’s ruling after trial that Louisiana violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by failing to properly provide voter registration services to its public assistance clients.

Plaintiffs in the case, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., (LDF); Project Vote; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP; and Louisiana attorney Ron Wilson, previously secured, after a vigorously contested trial, a ruling that Louisiana failed, as required by Section 7 of the NVRA or the “motor voter law,” to offer mandatory voter registration services to the state’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens during benefits transactions providing social services.

“While the Fifth Circuit was correct to recognize Louisiana’s failure to provide voter registration for clients who receive benefits in person, it did not fully recognize the scope of Louisiana’s violation of the National Voter Registration Act,” said Natasha Korgaonkar, Assistant Counsel for NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a separate organization from the NAACP.

In particular, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Plaintiff Mr. Luther Scott did not have standing to participate in this lawsuit. The court further stated that while the other plaintiff, the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP, did have standing to challenge in person transactions, it did not have standing to argue that the NVRA extends to transactions that take place remotely, including by phone, mail, or the Internet. Remote transactions constitute the majority of benefits transactions in Louisiana today. 

At trial, Mr. Scott, a recipient of SNAP (food stamps), provided uncontroverted testimony that he was denied the chance to register to vote when applying for food stamps benefits in Louisiana.

“Aspects of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling sharply contravene the text, spirit, and purpose of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires Louisiana to provide opportunities for people like Mr. Scott to register to vote.  Louisiana failed to do that for Mr. Scott,” said Ryan P. Haygood, LDF’s Deputy Director of Litigation. “We are prepared to vigorously protect Mr. Scott’s right to register to vote, which should have been afforded to him when he received SNAP benefits.”

The decision also reverses the district court’s decision, supported with precedent from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, that Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act creates an “opt-out” structure wherein benefits recipients are to receive voter registration services unless they specifically decline them. The Fifth Circuit’s departure from the sister circuit’s decision could create significant gaps in voter registration access for all benefits recipients in Louisiana.

“The ‘opt-in’ interpretation flies in the face of the law’s language, as the Chief Judge noted in his dissent.” said Louisiana attorney Ron Wilson.

The Fifth Circuit correctly determined that the Louisiana Secretary of State has the ability and the responsibility to enforce compliance with the NVRA in all relevant agencies in the State of Louisiana, contrary to what Secretary Tom Schedler argued.

“The National Voter Registration Act is designed to make it easier for all Americans to register to vote and to maintain their registration” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Government Agency Voter Registration Program at Project Vote, “and, though problematic in other respects, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling appropriately recognized the responsibility of chief election officials to ensure implementation of this statute.”

Israel David of Fried Frank stated, “We are gratified that this decision leaves in place some of the protections for public assistance recipients built into the District Court’s decision.  We will continue to pursue all available means to protect the right to register to vote for all citizens in Louisiana who receive benefits.” Jesse Ryan Loffler of Fried Frank added, “While we agree with Chief Judge Stewart that portions of this decision are departures from the letter and spirit of the NVRA, we are pleased that the decision does not upset the significant moves to NVRA compliance made by the agencies directly providing public assistance, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Health and Hospitals, neither of which appealed the District Court’s ruling.”

The ruling partially vacates a District Court ruling in Scott, et al. v. Schedler, et al., which found that the Louisiana Secretary of State, as well as the Department of Health and Hospitals, and Department of Children and Family Services, violated federal law by failing to offer the mandated opportunity to register to vote to all applicants for public assistance benefits, including food stamps, TANF, Medicaid, and WIC, as required by the NVRA.

Natasha Korgaonkar, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Sarah Brannon, attorney for Project Vote, presented oral argument before a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2013.