Voting rights group sues Mo., election boards

Thursday, April 24, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A voting rights group sued the state Wednesday, alleging that it was not following federal law requiring it to help low-income or disabled people register to vote.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, filed the suit in federal court in Kansas City against the Missouri Department of Social Services, its Family Support Division, and the election commissions in St. Louis, Kansas City and Jackson County.

A National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the "motor-voter" law, requires state public assistance agencies, which administer such programs as Food Stamps and Medicaid, to provide clients with the chance to register to vote and to help them complete the registrations.

However, ACORN and representatives of other voting rights organizations said the state is not meeting that requirement, leaving thousands of low-income or disabled Missourians unable to vote.

"It is ridiculous to me that there is a law that says 'This is what you need to do,' here is a piece of paper you need to offer, the person is sitting right there, so why aren't you offering it?" Barbara Williams, an ACORN member from St. Louis, said during a news conference Wednesday. "Why do we have to go to the extent to go to a judge to say 'Do what the law requires you to do?'"

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the social services department to comply with the law before this year's election. It also seeks to have one person in every social services office in charge of making sure the voter registration is offered, and it wants each office to issue reports to track compliance.

The Kansas City, St. Louis and Jackson County election commissions were included in the lawsuit because they are required to train staff to provide voter registration and to keep records and process the applications.

Voter registrations from social service offices in Missouri declined from 143,135 in the 1996 election cycle to 15,568 in the 2006 election cycle, according to the lawsuit. The decline came even though the state has seen an overall increase during the same time frame in the Food Stamps program, one of the most widely used public assistance programs.

And, the plaintiffs said, voter registrations at motor vehicle offices had remained nearly constant during those years.

"You shouldn't have to have a car in order to be able to vote," Williams said.

Jan Carter, a special assistant to Deborah Scott, director of the Department of Social Services, said the department had done "an exceptional job" of getting people registered.

ACORN has been criticized in the past for registration card problems, including in 2006 when St. Louis election officials claimed workers turned in up to 1,500 potentially bogus voter registration cards.

Earlier this month, eight people who gathered registrations for ACORN pleaded guilty to federal election fraud for submitting false registration cards for the 2006 election. Similar problems arose in Kansas City in 2006.

ACORN contends that the group does honest work but that mistakes with voter cards are sometimes made while signing up thousands of voters.

Carter said it was not surprising that the large number of registrations recorded right after the federal law was passed had reached a plateau and begun to decline.

Carter said people who used social services now can apply or recertify their benefits by mail, the Internet, on the telephone or at doctors' offices, meaning fewer people are using the offices.

"And, just because someone is eligible for public assistance benefits doesn't mean they haven't already registered to vote," Carter said.

Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project, said the state's obligation to help clients register does not end because of changes in technology, and argued that most clients still go to the offices.

"A 90 percent decrease in registrations over 12 years can't be explained away because of remote transactions," he said.

Field investigators who interviewed people leaving state social service offices in the last year in Jackson, Clay and St. Louis counties and St. Louis city said almost none of those people were asked if they wanted to register, according to Scott Novakowski, a senior policy analyst for Demos, one of four national advocacy groups representing the plaintiffs. Three of the sites visited did not have voter registration applications available, he said.

"That indicates a pretty significant failure to comply with the federal law," Novakowski said.

Carter said ACORN had declined to supply the state with specific information on any of those visits, or on any person who claimed not to have been asked to register.

"Clearly, if there had been some issues with specific parties, we would have taken actions to correct them," Carter said. "Right now, we don't have any information that was brought to our attention."

The state's failure to comply with the law has cost ACORN time and money that it could have used for other projects, said Brian Mellor, senior counsel for Project Vote.

"ACORN's goal is to get low- to moderate-income people on the voter roles," Mellor said. "They're having to do a lot of voter registration because social services is not doing its job. ACORN would like to get them to do their job so we don't have to do it."

A spokeswoman for the St. Louis Election Commission referred questions to the commission's attorney, and no one from the Kansas City of Jackson County commissions was available to comment Wednesday.

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