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Constitutional Law Clinic Joins Call for New Jersey to Comply with Federal Law Requiring Voter Registration for Low-Income Residents

October 01, 2013 – 

Citing clear evidence that numerous low-income New Jersey residents have been denied the opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from the Rutgers School of Law–Newark Constitutional Law Clinic, Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the NAACP have issued official notice to Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, as well as the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS), that the state is not in compliance with the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).  

The notification letter, sent today on behalf of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP, calls on Guadagno and DHS to take corrective action necessary to bring New Jersey into compliance with the NVRA by offering voter registration opportunities at public assistance agencies or to face possible litigation. 

Commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law, the NVRA requires motor vehicle agencies, as well as public assistance agencies that provide services such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other benefits, to proactively offer voter registration services to their clients. Since the implementation of the NVRA, an estimated 141 million Americans have applied to get on the voter rolls through the registration services the NVRA requires at motor vehicle agencies, disability offices, and public assistance agencies. 

The notice letter cites evidence that public assistance agencies in New Jersey are neglecting to consistently offer voter registration services to their clients, and are therefore failing to carry out their responsibilities under the NVRA. As discussed in the notice letter, there has been a significant decline in the number of voter registration applications from New Jersey public assistance agencies since 1995, despite a sharp increase in the number of persons seeking public assistance. Investigations at county welfare agencies also showed a lack of compliance with the law. Discussions with both clients and agency staff confirmed that voter registration services were not consistently offered as required by the NVRA.   

“Public assistance agencies are a vital component of the voter registration system because they connect with Americans, including low-income individuals and persons with disabilities, who are less likely to register through other means,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Registration Program at Project Vote.

Rutgers Professor Frank Askin says, “We have been trying since 2010 to bring New Jersey into compliance with the law. The Division of Human Services initially acknowledged the problem and announced an Implementation Plan to correct it. But, unfortunately, that plan was never carried out.”

“The NVRA tasks all states, including New Jersey, with promoting and protecting one of the most fundamental freedoms of our democracy,” said Dave Rubino, Counsel at Demos. “Voting is the means by which Americans, regardless of class or race, control their lives and their futures. Right now, New Jersey is falling short on this task.”

“Our work to ensure that states offer voter registration at public assistance agencies as required by the NVRA helps to guarantee that convenient voter registration opportunities are accessible to all eligible citizens,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.      

“Due to New Jersey’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the NVRA, the indigent are less likely to register to vote,” said James Harris, president of the New Jersey State Conference of NAACP. “True democracy requires the participation of all citizens regardless of race or income. It is unfortunate and unacceptable for elected officials to disregard laws and allow policies that diminish opportunities for minority and poor citizens to exercise the basic right to vote. The State Conference is committed to doing everything possible to educate, organize, and mobilize all citizens who are eligible to vote.” 

In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states neglecting the NVRA into compliance with dramatic results. For example, Missouri public assistance agencies received more than 500,000 applications in the four years following a successful court action to improve compliance in that state. Prior to a 2008 court order, the state had averaged fewer than 8,000 per year. And, after a similar case was settled in Ohio in 2009, voter registration applications from public assistance agencies in the state increased from an average of 25,000 applications per year to more than 200,000 per year. 

The voting rights groups urge the state to take immediate action to bring New Jersey into compliance with the NVRA, and offer to work cooperatively with DHS to develop a plan to do so.