by Max Brantley
Voting rights groups complain that state agencies and officials haven't sufficiently complied with federal law to encourage registration of low-income voters. Registrations have dropped sharply at such agencies as the Department of Human Services, Health Department, Motor Vehicle services and others.
A news release noted that registration had dropped 86 percent during a time when food stamp applications — a time when voter registration must be offered — had risen 40 percent.
The groups sent a "pre-litigation" letter to Secretary of State Mark Martin and state agencies. It was sent on behalf of the Arkansas NAACP.
I've sought responses from Martin and major state agencies.
Anecdote: I recently renewed my driver's license and was asked if I wanted to register to vote.
UPDATE: Martin's office said its staff would be consulting with agencies on procedures. A spokesman for DHS said:
We have seen the letter and believe we are in compliance with National Voter Registration Act. That being said, we take the concerns expressed in the letter quite seriously, and we are looking into the allegations of noncompliance. If we find that there is noncompliance, we will address that as quickly as possible.
And this came from the Health Department:
The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) received notification via a faxed letter on June 11, 2012 from Project Vote and Demos addressed to the Secretary of State of Arkansas, alleging violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). This letter does not specify which allegations are being made against the Arkansas Department of Human Services and the ADH. The ADH understands its obligations and duties to comply with the NVRA as well as Arkansas law, specifically Act 947 of 1995. After the adoption of these laws, the ADH subsequently instituted policies and procedures to ensure that processes are in place to comply with all state and federal laws. Additionally, the agency has from time to time received training on the Motor Voter Laws from the Secretary of State’s Office.
In response to receipt of this letter, the Agency has notified the Attorney General’s Office, and we will fully cooperate with the Secretary of State’s investigation into this matter. We remain available to meet with Project Vote and Demos officials and discuss any specific allegations against the ADH. We are providing our most recent voter registration reporting documents made to the Arkansas legislature. We are also providing a copy of our policy and procedures.
Citing clear evidence that low-income Arkansas residents have been denied the opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from voting rights groups Project Vote and Demos sent a pre-litigation notice letter to Secretary of State Mark Martin, the Arkansas Department of Human Services, and the Arkansas Department of Health, regarding the state’s non-compliance with the federal requirements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
"It is clear that Arkansas has been violating the NVRA for years, and neglecting tens of thousands of low-income residents as a result," said Sarah Brannon, Director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote. “Public agency registration reaches citizens who are unlikely to register through other means, so, in this important election year, it is vital that Arkansas is complying with the law.”
Congress passed the NVRA to boost democratic participation by ensuring that all eligible citizens have ample opportunities to register to vote. Among other provisions, the law, commonly known as “Motor Voter,” requires Departments of Motor Vehicles to offer voter registration, and also requires state agencies that administer federal assistance programs (such as food stamps, Medicaid, TANF, and WIC) to assist their applicants and clients in registering to vote.
The notification letter, sent Monday on behalf of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, calls on Martin and the agencies to take corrective action necessary to bring Arkansas into compliance with this federal law. The NVRA requires state agencies that administer federal assistance programs to offer voter registration services to their clients with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction. The letter cites evidence showing that the agencies are failing to fully meet their responsibilities under the law.
The evidence cited includes Election Assistance Commission reports, which show that registrations have plummeted 86% since the NVRA was first implemented, from more than 28,000 in 1995-1996, to a mere 4,078 in the 2009-2010 reporting period. This decrease is particularly troubling given that the number of initial food stamp applications in Arkansas during the same time frame rose 40%, from 528,693, meaning that the decrease in voter registration applications does not reflect any reduction in public assistance caseloads.
Recent field surveys of agency offices and clients confirm that the state is defaulting on its federally required obligations. Public assistance clients are routinely only provided voter registration forms if they affirmatively request them; this is in direct violation of the NVRA, which requires that forms be handed out with every transaction unless clients specifically decline them. Additionally, many clients reported that they had not been offered the opportunity to register to vote even after requesting the forms.
"The NVRA was designed to help ensure that we have a strong democracy where citizens, regardless of race or class, have the freedom to vote and to participate in making the decisions that affect all our lives,” said Dave Rubino, counsel with the Ideal Elections team at Demos. “Arkansas’s failure to implement this law is discouraging thousands of eligible voters from registering to vote at a moment when the 1 percent has outsized influence over our elections and policies. The state should address the issue immediately,"
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by some of the same voting rights 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 2009. Over 360,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases were recently settled in New Mexico, Indiana, and Georgia.
"In keeping with the NAACP's mission, the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP believes that every citizen should be offered the opportunity to register to vote as required by the NVRA,” said Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP. “We believe the low- and moderate-income citizen should not be excluded from the opportunity to participate in the voting process as a citizen of Arkansas.”
“We stand with our partners and urge the State of Arkansas to comply with the law and provide its low-income citizens the opportunity to register to vote when seeking services,” stated LULAC National Executive Director Brent Wilkes. “Under federal law, Arkansas is required to provide access to voter registration forms and help its citizens seeking public assistance to register to vote. They should immediately take steps to bring themselves into compliance with the law.”
The letter’s signatories are eager to work with state officials to bring the state into compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all Arkansas residents have an equal opportunity to register to vote.