The Work

June 6, 2011 6:14 PM

Dechert Files Voting Rights Lawsuit in Georgia

Posted by Victor Li

UPDATE: June 7, 2011, 10:55 a.m. Reaction from the Georgia Department of Human Services has been added to the sixth paragraph below.

Representing a coalition of voting rights, civil liberties, and minority rights groups, Dechert filed suit in an Atlanta federal district court on Monday accusing Georgia state officials of neglecting their obligations under federal law to provide voter registration services to low-income residents at public aid offices.

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), states are required to distribute registration forms every time an individual fills out an application for public assistance (such as food stamps or Medicaid). The law, known as the "motor voter" law, was passed during the Clinton administration and also required state motor vehicles departments to provide voter registration applications.

Dechert, which is working pro bono, filed the complaint on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda.

Led by partner Neil Steiner, a veteran of a similar suit in Ohio, Dechert is working alongside attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Project Vote, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action, and the national office of the NAACP.

The complaint requests declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as an order directing the secretary of State of Georgia and the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services to agree to a court-approved plan ensuring ongoing compliance with the law.

"At this time the Secretary of StateĀ¹s Office has not been served with nor seen a copy of a lawsuit alleging violations of the NVRA and so cannot comment on it," said Matthew Carrothers, a spokesman with the Georgia Secretary of State's office. The Department of Human Services also stated that it had not received a copy of the complaint and declined to comment. 

According to the complaint, the number of voter registrations from public assistance offices declined steadily since the 1995-1996 reporting period, when Georgia reported more than 100,000 such registrations to just 4,430 in 2010.

Additionally, 39 counties failed to register a single voter from a Georgia DHS office in at least one out of the preceding seven years and one office went a seven-year period without signing up a single voter. By contrast, Georgia reported almost 70,000 applications for food stamps a month in 2009.

"The number of people receiving public assistance is increasing, but the number of registrants through public assistance is decreasing," says Steiner, who obtained a settlement in the Ohio matter at the end of 2009. "That doesn't make sense."

Steiner said that, in the period following the settlement in Ohio, the state netted an average of more than 15,000 registrations from public assistance offices per month.

"We investigated by interviewing people as they left DHS offices, not just in one county but in 11. The overwhelming response was 'We don't have them. We don't do that here. Go to the Board of Elections,'" says Steiner.

According to Steiner, Georgia state officials weren't willing to cooperate to see if things could be resolved without resorting to litigation.

"We were more than happy to talk to them about what had happened in other states and what we believed was required under the law," says Steiner.

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