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Voting rights activists threaten to sue Michigan

A coalition of groups, including Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL), and the NAACP, sent a letter to Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson last week alleging that the state is in violation of federal law requiring voter registration at public assistance offices.

Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) requires the states to provide voter registration services in the offices of all agencies that provide public assistance. The NVRA requires more than merely making voter registration available to those who apply for public assistance, it requires several affirmative steps be taken to encourage applicants to register to vote. With every initial application, recertification, renewal or change of address, the agency must:

  • Include a voter registration form “unless the applicant, in writing, declines to register to vote.”
  • Inform the applicant in writing that, “Applying to register or declining to register to vote will not affect the amount of assistance that you will be provided by this agency.”
  • Provide assistance in filling out the forms, if necessary.

Nicole Zeitler, an attorney with Project Vote, told the Michigan Messenger that the state is not following the law.

“The NVRA requires the state to do more than simply make voter registration ‘available’ at public assistance agencies,” she said. “Agencies must affirmatively offer a voter registration application form with EVERY application for benefits, recertification, and change of address form, whether or not the client asks for one. Michigan DHS policy, on the other hand—in violation of the NVRA—is to ONLY offer a form IF someone specifically requests one. Furthermore, our field investigations found that only 1 in 4 clients who did request a form received one.”

The letter sent to Johnson’s office refers to interviews done with applicants at public assistance offices around the state and notes:

• More than half of interviewees (75 out of 149) did not notice the voter registration question within the forms they were provided by DHS – regardless of the type of transaction, program, or location/county of the transaction. Of these 75, only six were orally asked by any DHS employee about voter registration. Only three of the 75 received a voter registration application.

• Notwithstanding DHS policy that voter registration application forms are to be provided to clients who check “yes” in response to the voter registration question, fewer than 25% of people who checked “yes” received a voter registration

application.

• No one who was at a DHS office to make an address change saw any voter registration question within their benefits forms, was asked orally if they wanted to register, or was provided with a voter registration application.

Zeitler said several recent court decisions reinforce the group’s interpretation of the NVRA. She also noted that when the NVRA requirements are fully implemented, the result is a sizable increase in new voter registrations.

“The success of this program, when implemented as the law requires, is staggering,” she said. “In the year following the court order in Missouri, for example, applications from public agencies went from fewer than 8,000 a year to between 8,000–18,000 per month.”

Ultimately, Zeitler said, this is about making the right to vote as widely available to those with the least amount of political power.

“Congress included the public assistance requirements in the NVRA in order to reach the very people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled,” she argued. “In neglecting this important law, Michigan is denying tens of thousands of Michigan residents their federally mandated opportunity to register to vote.”

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office declined comment, saying that the department has not yet had time to review the letter.

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