PHILADELPHIA–(ENEWSPF)–August 23, 2012. On Wednesday, the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) and ACTION United entered a Court approved Settlement Agreement with the Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, Secretary of Public Welfare Gary D. Alexander, and Secretary of Health Dr. Eli N. Avila resolving claims relative to the Commonwealth’s compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Since its 1993 enactment, the NVRA has helped ensure that low-income residents receive an opportunity to register to vote by mandating that all public assistance agencies offer voter registration services. The plaintiffs are represented by a coalition of national voting rights groups including Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and pro bono counsel Hogan Lovells, US LLP.
The plaintiffs’ initial complaint alleged that the majority of clients seeking public assistance services in Pennsylvania were not being offered voter registration opportunities in accordance with the law.
KEY SETTLEMENT POINTS:
Per the terms of the settlement, the Commonwealth has agreed to the following:
- Relevant agency policies and practices will be amended to assure DPW County Assistance Offices (“CAOs”) and WIC Local Agency Offices distribute a voter registration application with each application for public assistance and with each renewal, recertification or change of address related to such assistance, except in cases where an applicant for Public Assistance declines in writing to receive a voter registration application. This will apply equally to both in person and remote transactions.
- DPW and DOH will include the official voter registration application and voter preference/notice form on their website(s) as part of any downloadable public assistance benefits applications, any downloadable renewal or recertification forms, or any downloadable change of address forms. If Pennsylvania, in the future, allows electronic voter registration, the option to connect through a link to the online voter registration application shall also be provided.
- Where a public assistance client applies remotely for renewal, recertification or change of address related to benefits, a voter preference form and/or voter registration application will be mailed to them automatically.
- Monthly data tracking and analysis will be enhanced such that compliance with the NVRA can be monitored and, if necessary, corrected.
- Modified staffing requirements at each agency and the Secretary’s office will ensure that job duties of responsible personnel are in line with NVRA requirements. DPW NVRA Coordinators and pertinent DPW CAO employees and DOH’s NVRA Coordinator shall be periodically reviewed for compliance with the NVRA’s requirements, including through annual Employee Performance Reviews (“EPRs”) as appropriate.
- A pre-election training of agency staff, followed by semi-annual trainings on the NVRA thereafter will be put into place. The initial training will focus on the new policy changes while subsequent trainings will be comprehensive overviews of all NVRA compliance requirements.
- Each DPW-CAO and DOH Local Agency Offices shall prominently post a sign, provided by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, generally advising the public of the opportunity to register to vote when an individual submits a benefits application, recertification, renewal, or a change of address and encouraging them to do so.
The term of the agreement will be three years – ending September 2015.
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by the same voting rights groups have led to other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to almost 10,000 a month, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2009. Nearly 480,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases were also recently settled in New Mexico, Indiana, and Georgia.
“The people in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and indeed the nation, who might benefit the most from having an ongoing, consistent, and accessible opportunity to register to vote are low income residents. The opportunity for political empowerment and the opportunity to vote in each and every election cannot be underestimated. A lifetime commitment to voting is crucial,” said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of B-PEP, “If this agreement has its intended effect, there could be hundreds of thousands of eligible voters added to the rolls every year.”
“Voting is the cornerstone of civic engagement and a critical part of being a citizen,” said Lucille Prater-Holliday, president of ACTION United. “Public assistance offices are tasked with facilitating the voter registration of low-income citizens. Without full and robust compliance with the NVRA the disenfranchisement and disengagement of these citizens is only perpetuated. We are glad that the Commonwealth has bound itself to a meaningful implementation of the statute.”