On January 23, voting rights advocates won a major legal victory on behalf of Louisiana's public assistance agency clients, the state's most vulnerable and most marginalized residents.
In a 36-page ruling, following a trial in October 2012 in the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, Judge Jane Triche Milazzo found that the state of Louisiana violated federal law by failing to offer an opportunity to register to vote to all applicants and recipients of food stamps, TANF, Medicaid, and WIC. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires that voter registration be offered to all such individuals, whether they seek benefits in person, or by the internet, telephone, or mail.
"The NVRA's purpose is to expand voter registration and encourage participation in our great democracy," said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program at Project Vote. "The state of Louisiana spent over two years fighting compliance with the NVRA. Thankfully their efforts were not successful, because the court recognized that a meaningful opportunity to register to vote must be provided to low-income citizens."
"Yesterday's ruling means that Louisiana will finally be required to comply with federal law, and that the state must help our most vulnerable fellow citizens register to vote," said Dale Ho, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). "Our democracy is stronger when more Americans are provided with an opportunity to participate."
The NVRA's requirement that states must provide voter registration to public assistance clients has resulted in millions of Americans becoming registered to vote. The court found that Louisiana failed to do its job to provide these opportunities to its citizens and must take meaningful action to provide those opportunities in the future.
The court's order was a major victory for the plaintiffs, the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and Luther Scott, Jr., an individual client of the state's public assistance program. The court concluded that the Louisiana Secretary of State, Department of Children and Family Services, and Department of Health and Hospitals systemically violated the NVRA's requirement that they provide voter registration to public assistance clients. The court enumerated numerous violations by the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Department of Children and Family Services, and found that the Secretary of State had failed to ensure that the departments were in compliance with the NVRA.
The court ordered that all three defendants amend their practices and certify compliance with the law by March 15, 2013. The court also issued a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to comply with the law in the future. The decision sends a clear message that states will be held accountable if they do not follow the law.
"It is a great day in the state of Louisiana for voting rights," said Dr. Ernest Johnson, president of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP. "We urge the state of Louisiana to act with all due speed to comply with the law and the court's order. We would like to thank the legal team and others, including Mr. Scott, for all their support and contributions the resulted in success of the case."
"The significance of the decision rendered by Judge Milazzo cannot be overstated," said attorney Ron Wilson. "In so ruling, she acknowledged and gave due meaning to the purpose behind the enactment of the NVRA, to make it easier, and not more difficult, for individuals to register to vote. We look forward to Louisiana's immediate implementation of the court's ruling."
"I'm glad that justice was served in the state of Louisiana," said Luther Scott, Jr., a plaintiff.
"This is a great victory for democracy," said Michael B. de Leeuw, a partner at the law firm of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, LLP. "We were inspired at every turn by our client Luther Scott, a proud veteran of our armed services, who, in the wake of Katrina, found himself down on his luck for a while. Through this lawsuit, Mr. Scott continued to fight for his country, and his contribution to voting rights will not be forgotten."
The plaintiffs are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., Project Vote, the law firm of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, LLP, and New Orleans Attorney Ron Wilson.
Plaintiffs showed 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 in the state. As of 2008, voter registration applications originating in these agencies had dropped 88 percent from 1995, despite increased participation in public assistance programs.
A coalition of nonprofit partners have been working across the country to ensure that the NVRA is being enforced. As of September 2012, one and a half million low-income people in 10 different states have applied to register to vote as a result of proper NVRA enforcement.
Project Vote is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) that works to empower, educate, and mobilize low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented voters.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) is America's legal counsel on issues of race. Through advocacy and litigation, LDF focuses on issues of education, voter protection, economic justice and criminal justice. We
encourage students to embark on careers in the public interest through scholarships and internship programs. LDF pursues racial justice to move our nation toward a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans.