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La. Welfare Recipients Win Voting Rights Victory

Posted: May 22, 2012

NEW ORLEANS -– Voting rights advocates won an important legal victory earlier this month that will ensure Louisiana’s public assistance agency clients—the state’s poorest and most marginalized residents—will be offered an opportunity to register to vote.

In a forceful decision, a federal judge ruled on May 8 in favor of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP, saying that Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) requires all public assistance clients be provided with a voter registration application whether they seek benefits in person or via the Internet, telephone or mail. The state of Louisiana argued that its public assistance agencies were only required to offer voter registration to those clients who appeared in person.

“The vast majority of Louisiana’s public assistance clients never step foot in a state office, and failing to offer them a chance to register to vote violates federal law,” said Dale Ho, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), who argued on behalf of the Plaintiffs at a hearing held on April 20. “Louisiana’s refusal to enforce the NVRA risks denying tens of thousands of our poorest citizens a clear path to voter registration.”

“The court’s ruling will ensure that low-income individuals will not be denied voter registration services because of advancing technology,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program at Project Vote. “The court recognized that the mandates of the NVRA are not limited to in-person visits to public assistance offices.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and an individual client of the state’s public assistance agencies. The Plaintiffs are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., Project Vote, and New Orleans Attorney Ron Wilson.

Plaintiffs argue that, despite consistently high numbers of participants in Louisiana’s food stamp and Medicaid programs, voter registration applications originating from public assistance agencies have been surprisingly low. As of 2008, voter registration applications originating in these agencies had dropped 88 percent from 1995, despite increased participation in public assistance programs. Nationwide, as of October 2011, more than one million low-income people in five different states have registered to vote as a result of proper NVRA enforcement.

The Court will next address whether Louisiana complied with its duty to offer registration to persons accessing benefits by telephone and through the Internet. “We intend to move forward quickly and forcefully to ensure all Louisiana citizens are provided with an opportunity to register to vote in advance of the upcoming elections,” said Attorney Ron Wilson.

“The Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP is committed to ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens are not denied their voting rights,” said Ernest Johnson, president of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP.

“We are a stronger nation when every segment of our society is encouraged to vote, and we trust that Louisiana will come to see the wisdom of this basic principle,” concluded Debo P. Adegbile, LDF Interim President and Director-Counsel.

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