State agencies agree to help low-income voters register

Posted: August 22, 2012

Two federal judges approved an agreement Wednesday between voting rights groups and the heads of several state agencies to settle allegations they were shirking their duties under a 1993 federal voting law.

The National Voter Registration Act requires public assistance agencies to offer voter registration services to low-income residents.

Philadelphia-based ACTION United and the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh sued the secretaries of State, Public Welfare and Health last month in federal court and said officials were not making voter registration accessible to public assistance clients.

The settlement comes amid ongoing litigation in state court over whether Pennsylvania's new voter ID law is disenfranchising thousands of voters.

The federal lawsuit alleged residents seeking public assistance were not being offered voter registration applications and voter preference forms and that some local offices did not even have forms available on request.

The agreement, approved by U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe and U.S. Magistrate Carol Sandra Moore Wells, requires the departments of Public Welfare and Health to make voter materials available whenever clients apply for or renew benefits or change their address, in person or off site.

DPW and DOH must also retrain staff to reflect the new procedures; designate coordinators to ensure voter registration services are implemented; assign staff to visit local public assistance offices and monitor compliance with NVRA; and submit monthly reports to plaintiffs' lawyers.

The agreement provides for three years of oversight by the court to resolve any disputes.

State officials did not admit any violation of NVRA and said the agreement should not be seen as an acknowledgment the new procedures weren't already in place or being implemented.

Based on the state's own submissions to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the number of voter registration applications submitted at Pennsylvania's public assistance offices fell from 59,462 in 1995-96 to just 4,179 in 2009-10 even though applicants for public assistance increased.

Contact Michael Hinkelman at hinkelm@phillynews.com or 215-854-2656. Follow him on Twitter @MHinkelman.

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