Liberals Urge Lawsuits to Boost Voter Register Among Low-Income People

By Susan Jones | April 8, 2009 | 11:28 AM EDT

( – Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pressing the Justice Department to sue states that do not offer voter registration at public assistance and welfare agencies.
Under Section 7 of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), eligible citizens must be given the chance to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license -- or when visiting state agencies for food stamps, unemployment  and other welfare benefits.
People applying for assistance – even those just wishing to change their address -- “must be provided with a voter registration form…as well as assistance in completing the form and forwarding the completed application to the appropriate state or local election official,” the Justice Department says.
“This law is supposed to simplify the voter registration process, but it has been complicated by the rogue behavior of a large batch of states,” said Schumer, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.
In an April 7 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Schumer said, “It is clear that states need to do more to comply with the NVRA, and I respectfully request that the Civil Rights Division move to determine whether state agencies are complying with these requirements of the Act.” 
While many people register to vote at motor vehicle agencies, far fewer do so at social service agencies.
According to data compiled by the Census Bureau, in 2006, 21 percent of registered voters said they signed up at motor vehicle departments, but in the same year, only 0.7 percent registered to vote at a public assistance agency.
Schumer says “lax enforcement” of the law has led to a sharp reduction in the number of registrations at public assistance agencies since 1996.
“The Bush administration essentially condoned this flouting of the law, but with new leadership at the Justice Department, we hope states will be made to meet their obligations. Attorney General Holder should pull out all the stops to ensure the law is followed. If that means taking certain states to court, so be it,” Schumer said. 
Last year, the Bush Justice Department told Schumer that 18 states were under investigation for failing to implement parts of the NVRA law. The administration refused to name the states or the nature of the infraction under review, Schumer said.
The League of Women Voters and liberal activists are praising Schumer for calling attention “to this critical issue.”