In April 2008, the Lawyers’ Committee and its partners filed suit, on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and St. Louis resident Dionne O’Neal, charging widespread violations of the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by the State of Missouri.
In July 2009, the Lawyers’ Committee and its partners presented evidence at a preliminary injunction hearing indicating that, for years, the Missouri Department of Social Services had failed to provide tens of thousands of low-income Missourians with the opportunity to register to vote, as required by Section 7 of the NVRA.
The federal court agreed and, on July 15, 2008, United States District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey issued an order directing the Missouri Department of Social Services to immediately comply with Section 7. Plaintiffs and the Department of Social Services settled upon an interim remedial plan, which resulted in thousands of additional public assistance clients being able to submit voter registration applications. During the six months under the plan, for example, the number of registration applications increased by 2000% over the pre-lawsuit rate.
On June 25, 2009, the parties entered into a final settlement of the lawsuit. The agreement specifies the procedures to be used in distributing voter registration applications to public assistance clients, and requires training and monitoring to ensure that individual offices continue to comply with the law. The agreement will remain in effect for four years. Pursuant to the agreement, Missouri files monthly reports detailing the number of voter registration applications received from public assistance clients, and these reports continue to show the outstanding progress that was achieved with the interim remedial plan.
The NVRA, most commonly known for its “motor voter” component, requires that states offer voter registration at public assistance offices, as well as at motor vehicle offices. In enacting this statute , Congress expressly recognized that the right to vote “is a fundamental right,” and took note of the disproportionate harm to voter participation by racial minorities caused by discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures. The NVRA’s public assistance component is particularly important since low-income citizens are less likely to own a car and thus are among the least likely to register to vote at motor vehicle offices.
This lawsuit against the State of Missouri is part of an ongoing coalitional effort by the Lawyers’ Committee, Demos, and Project Vote to ensure that states fully carry out their responsibility under the NVRA to offer voter registration at public assistance offices.