Civil rights groups sue state officials over voter registrations

Adam Jadhav // Published April 24, 2008 in ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Voting-rights activists filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Missouri public aid officials and election authorities in St. Louis and Kansas City, saying that agencies have failed to help poor people stay active on the voter rolls.

The suit, filed in Kansas City by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, focuses on a 1993 federal law that requires voter registration to be offered at drivers license facilities and government assistance offices — those that offer aid such as food stamps, Medicaid and welfare. But although registering at drivers license offices is now commonplace, activists claim the Missouri Department of Social Services has shirked its obligations.

ACORN, represented by lawyers from national groups Project Vote, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also says election authorities need to better instruct local public aid offices.

The lawsuit carries all the overtones of a traditional political brawl, pitting groups allied with minorities and the poor — who typically lean Democratic — against a key department of a Republican administration.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Missouri’s highest authority on elections and a Democrat, is not named as a defendant. The plaintiffs say Carnahan has been helpful on the issue.

Missouri is only the latest battleground for the voting groups, who have worked with Michigan, North Carolina and New Mexico. In 2006, Project Vote and others sued officials in Ohio.

Voter registration applications from drivers license offices have remained steady in recent years. But registrations at public aid agencies around the country have fallen, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Missouri, those offices handled more 143,000 registration applications in the 1996 election cycle. By the 2006 cycle, that figure had decreased almost 90 percent to fewer than 16,000.

"Those people belong in the electoral process," said Brian Mellor, a lawyer with Project Vote. "That was the point of the federal law — involve everybody."

Missouri Social Services Director Deborah Scott, the top official named in the suit, maintains that the state’s public aid offices were in compliance with federal rules. Scott’s assistant Jan Carter suggested Wednesday that a successful registration campaign years ago led to the decrease now.

"Once you’ve fished in a pool and caught most of the fish, the remaining fish are going to be limited," Carter said.

Carter also said aid offices see lower foot traffic today — and register fewer people — because clients can apply for services online and over the phone.

Mellor countered that the federal law didn’t distinguish between public aid services offered in person or online. And activists say they spot-checked almost a dozen offices in the St. Louis and Kansas City area and found that none offered voter registration materials with applications for public aid. Three didn’t even provide registration forms when asked, the activists said.

The lawsuit also contends that local election authorities should be stepping in. Jerry Wamser, an attorney for the St. Louis Elections Board, and Charles Renner, an attorney for the Kansas City board, both said they would review the suit but declined to comment further.

Charlene Davis, the Republican elections director for Jackson County, argued that her office had no authority to oversee public aid agencies. "Within their offices, we have no control," Davis said.

She said her office did conduct initial training sessions with social service workers, who resisted the federal requirements.

"There was a definite attitude problem," Davis said. "They felt that they were doing our work."

The dispute goes back to 2006, when Project Vote lawyers and others first approached Carnahan, who followed up in meetings, phone calls and e-mails with the public aid agencies.

In response to the lawsuit, Carnahan spokesman Ryan Hobart issued a statement: "It’s disappointing that, despite the wide-ranging efforts we have taken, all eligible Missourians might not have been given their legally required opportunity to register to vote."

Attorneys for the activists also wrote directly to Scott in August 2007 with their complaints, offering to meet with state officials. Alternatively, they warned they could file a lawsuit, according to letters provided to the Post-Dispatch.

Scott wrote back denying the allegations, defending the department and asking for more specifics; she also referred future contact to a state lawyer.

Carter, Scott’s assistant, suggested the lawsuit was an insincere way to achieve that goal. She also questioned ACORN’s credibility, noting that several employees were indicted last year on allegations involving bogus registrations.

Mellor said ACORN shouldn’t be held responsible for the misconduct of low-paid contractors.

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