Secretary of State Bennett and State Agencies on Notice for Violations of Federal Law
Phoenix AZ (August 6, 2014) – Citing clear evidence that numerous low-income Arizona residents have been denied the opportunity to register to vote, the League of Women Voters of Arizona and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sent official notice today to Secretary of State Ken Bennett, as well to the heads of three Arizona public assistance agencies (the Department of Economic Security, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, and the Department of Health Services), that the state is violating the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
The notification letter calls on Secretary Bennett, as Arizona’s chief election official, and the other officials to take the necessary corrective action to ensure Arizona’s public assistance offices comply with the NVRA. The letter notes that although the State entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2008, which has since expired, the state continues to violate key provisions of the NVRA. The voting rights groups also offer in the letter to work cooperatively with Secretary Bennett and state officials to help Arizona avoid litigation and come into compliance with the NVRA.
Legal representation is being provided to the two organizations by voting rights attorneys from Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the ACLU of Arizona.
The NVRA – commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law – requires states, including Arizona, to provide citizens with a variety of opportunities to register to vote, including an opportunity to register when completing a public assistance transaction. Since the implementation of the NVRA, an estimated 141 million Americans have applied to register to vote using NVRA-required registration methods.
The notice letter cites several ways that public assistance agencies in Arizona are neglecting to consistently offer voter registration to their clients, and are therefore failing to carry out their responsibilities under the NVRA. For example, Arizona, like other states, is increasingly interacting with clients by telephone and the Internet, but has failed to adequately offer voter registration services during these client interactions. Arizona also frequently fails to provide voter registration when clients change their addresses, which leaves even those who were previously registered unable to vote.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, there has been a decline in the number of voter registration applications from Arizona public assistance agencies since 1999, despite a sharp increase in the number of persons seeking public assistance. Field investigations of agency offices and a review of agency policies also indicated that many public assistance clients are not being offered the services required by the NVRA.
“Arizona has not been keeping up with its obligations to comply with federal law, and is currently failing to provide many low-income residents their federally-guaranteed opportunity to register to vote,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program at Project Vote.
“Arizona apparently refuses to learn from the past or to provide legally voter registration opportunities through its public assistance agencies,” said Stuart Naifeh, counsel at Demos. “Our democracy is stronger when more of our citizens have a voice in the political process, and Arizona has a responsibility to ensure that eligible citizens who want to register have the opportunity to do so.”
“Once again, the state of Arizona has erected road blocks between its citizens and their right to vote,” said Robyn Prud’homme-Bauer, president of the League of Women Voters of Arizona. “We urge Secretary Bennett to act swiftly to bring Arizona’s agencies back into NVRA compliance. All eligible Arizona voters should have ready access to their right to vote.”
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states neglecting the NVRA into compliance with dramatic results. For example, Missouri public assistance agencies received more than 500,000 applications in the four years following a successful court action to improve compliance in that state. Prior to a 2008 court order, Missouri averaged fewer than 8,000 per year. And, after a similar case was settled in Ohio in 2009, voter registration applications from public assistance agencies in the state increased from an average of 25,000 applications per year to more than 200,000 per year.
“Our work to ensure that states offer voter registration at public assistance agencies as required by the NVRA helps to guarantee that convenient voter registration opportunities are accessible to all eligible citizens,” said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.