Voting Rights Advocates Settle Voter Registration Suit

March 19, 2015

Today, voting rights advocates announced a settlement with the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) that will ensure that hundreds of thousands of eligible Massachusetts citizens are provided opportunities to register to vote in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). In light of the settlement, the parties have jointly requested that U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper enter an order dismissing the claims against the DTA. The settlement will become effective when Judge Casper enters the requested order.

Section 7 of the NVRA mandates that DTA public assistance offices offer voter registration services to eligible citizens. Based on the Commonwealth’s failure to comply with this federal mandate, plaintiffs NAACP-New England Area Conference (NAACP-NEAC) and New England United for Justice (NEU4J) filed suit against the DTA, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth in May 2012. The plaintiffs are represented by voting rights groups Dēmos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, as well as by the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP. During the course of the litigation, the state Office of Medicaid, or MassHealth, was added as a defendant. The settlement resolves claims against DTA only.

“From the beginning of the NAACP's 105 year history, advocacy for free and equal access to the ballot box has been an important focus of the NAACP,” stated Juan Cofield, president of NAACP-NEAC. “We regret that the NAACP had to file suit to achieve NVRA compliance but we are pleased to have reached an agreement with the DTA on matters that should guarantee free and equal access for voter registration to all citizens.”

The settlement agreement, which was filed yesterday in United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, contains several significant provisions including:

  • Automatic distribution of voter registration applications to citizens applying for public assistance as well as to those renewing public assistance benefits or changing their addresses.
  • Assistance in several different languages to clients while completing voter registration applications and delivery of voter registration applications to local election officials.
  • Regular oversight and reporting to ensure that DTA employees always provide the voter registration services required by federal law.

The agreement will be in force for three years, starting from the date that DTA implements all the changes agreed to by the settlement.

 “After three long years of working to ensure low income families are not left out of the voting process, we are excited to have an agreement with the state on ways they can improve their policies to ensure thousands of families are becoming registered to vote,” stated Maude Hurd, President of New England United for Justice. “This is not only a federal law that must be followed but this is about low income people protecting their rights to the process and rights they have in their communities to becoming registered voters.”

Congress enacted the NVRA in 1993 to expand voter participation in federal elections by ensuring that all eligible low-income citizens have opportunities to register to vote. Section 7 of the law requires state agencies that administer public assistance programs, including those that administer federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to provide voter registration applications and to assist their applicants and clients in registering to vote.

“Our democracy is stronger when all eligible persons are able to vote. The NVRA is a critical tool for making voter registration accessible to everyone, and states must follow it,” said Lisa Danetz, Legal Director of Dēmos and counsel for plaintiffs. “We are pleased with the agreed-to changes, which will empower more people to take part in our democracy.”

“This comprehensive settlement agreement ensures that DTA’s 500,000 clients will receive voter registration applications and, importantly, will have access to assistance in completing those applications, each time they apply for public assistance, renew or recertify eligibility, or change address, whether in-person at a DTA office, over the telephone or through the Internet,” said Ken Felter, a Boston-based partner at Ropes & Gray LLP and plaintiffs’ lead trial counsel. Felter noted that: “This agreement is an excellent example of Ropes & Gray’s continuing commitment to assist low-income individuals in securing their fundamental rights through our legal system.”

Yesterday’s agreement concludes three years of litigation over DTA’s voter registration services and procedures, including a July 2012 interim agreement, extensive document discovery, depositions of numerous DTA employees and officials, substantial motions practice, development of expert testimony to support plaintiffs’ claims, and months of comprehensive settlement negotiations.

“During this past election, we received a significant number of calls through our voter protection hotline about people not properly registered or uncertain about their registration status. This agreement will not only increase the number of registered voters, which is an important part of our democracy, but it ensures that thousands of people from historically overlooked communities are properly registered to vote,” said Rahsaan Hall, Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. 

“Congress passed the NVRA to reach eligible citizens who were less likely to register by other means,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. “Yesterday’s settlement will ensure that Massachusetts’ electorate more accurately reflects the diverse citizenry of the Commonwealth.”

“This settlement will help make sure that voter registration and compliance with the NVRA are incorporated into DTA’s daily work. As a result, citizens whose main contact with the Commonwealth is through DTA will have a regular opportunity to register or to update their registration, as Congress intended when it passed the NVRA,” said Bob Kengle, Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee (national).