Donté Donald, Demos: (212) 485-6062
Aaron Kellogg, Ropes & Gray LLP: (617) 235-4403
Michael McDunnah, Project Vote: (202) 905-1397
Rahsaan Hall, Lawyers’ Committee (Boston): (617) 988-0608
BOSTON, NEW YORK, and WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 17, 2015) – Voting rights advocates and Massachusetts officials announced today that settlements have been reached in a three-year old federal lawsuit regarding the requirement to provide voter registration opportunities to low-income citizens who receive public assistance benefits.
The lawsuit, filed in May 2012, was brought by New England United for Justice (NEU4J) and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP (NAACP-NEAC) against the Secretary of the Commonwealth (SOC), the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), the Office of Medicaid (MassHealth), and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS). It alleged that the state’s public assistance agencies were failing to provide voter registration services that are mandated by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The NVRA is the same law that requires voter registration services to be provided when a citizen applies for a driver’s license.
“After years of negotiations, strategic planning, and the litigation process, we are excited to put a successful close to our lawsuit,” stated Noemi Ramos, executive director of NEU4J. “This was about protecting the rights of low-income people in the Commonwealth to access voter registration.”
“This has been a long process but we are very happy about the procedures and safeguards that Massachusetts is instituting to ensure its low-income citizens have the same opportunity to register to vote as citizens who visit the Registry of Motor Vehicles,” stated Lisa Danetz, legal director at Demos and a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. “The NVRA is a critical tool for ensuring that all eligible Americans are able to participate in our democracy.”
The Department of Transitional Assistance, which runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) and cash assistance, settled with the plaintiffs in March of this year. Today’s settlement agreements were between the plaintiffs and the remaining defendants in the lawsuit. In particular:
- MassHealth has agreed to provide a voter registration application and offer assistance to each individual who applies, renews, or changes his or her address in connection with Medicaid benefits. MassHealth will also provide regular training for its employees and monitor NVRA compliance.
- The online health benefits application jointly used by MassHealth and the Massachusetts Health Connector will be re-programmed to provide voter registration opportunities.
- The SOC has agreed to review DTA and MassHealth voter registration policies and training materials, participate in training, and monitor registration activities of each of the public assistance agencies. The resulting voter registration data will be posted regularly on the SOC’s website.
- EOHHS, which oversees DTA, MassHealth and several other agencies with voter registration responsibilities, has agreed to send an annual notice to each such agency, reminding it of its NVRA responsibilities.
“For decades, the NAACP has been an ardent advocate for voting rights,” said Juan Cofield, president of NAACP-NEAC. “This settlement brings all American citizens in Massachusetts a little closer to having full access to the voting box.”
“These comprehensive agreements have accomplished the goals of this litigation – to ensure that Massachusetts is in compliance with federal law and that all Massachusetts citizens, regardless of income, can fully participate in the democratic process,” said Ken Felter, a Boston-based partner at Ropes & Gray LLP and the plaintiffs’ lead trial counsel. “It’s another example of Ropes & Gray’s continuing commitment to assist low-income individuals in securing their fundamental rights through access to the judicial system.”
In the summer of 2012, in anticipation of the November 2012 federal elections, the parties entered into an interim agreement that yielded at least 39,000 voter registration applications from DTA’s low-income clients over a four-month period. In contrast, in the four years prior to the lawsuit, DTA clients filled out only 3,100 voter registration applications.
“These settlements will help achieve the vision behind the NVRA statute: that low-income citizens be given voter registration opportunities so they may participate equally in our democracy,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, senior counsel at Project Vote. “When we filed the suit, there was a significant income-based voter registration gap in the Commonwealth, which these agreements will help bridge.”
The plaintiffs were represented by public policy organizations Demos, Project Vote, Boston Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, and the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as well as the law firm Ropes & Gray. Today, these lawyers, along with the Attorney General’s Office, filed papers in federal court asking Judge Denise Casper to dismiss the case based on the settlement agreements and to retain jurisdiction to resolve any disputes over the defendants’ compliance with the settlement agreements. The case will end when Judge Casper rules on the request.
“The spirit behind the NVRA was to increase opportunities for citizens to take an active role in our democracy,” said Rahsaan Hall, deputy director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “For those citizens who drive, registering to vote has been made more convenient. This settlement begins to level the playing field for other citizens and increases the opportunities for more Massachusetts citizens to participate in our democracy.”
“These agreements are built around proven methods for successfully integrating voter registration into public assistance agency operations,” said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We believe that these agreements will be effective in Massachusetts as they have been in other states and that the citizens of the Commonwealth will be the beneficiaries.”