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Valdez v. Herrera

July 01, 2010  |  Voting Rights Project

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), most commonly known for its "motor voter" component, requires that states provide voter registration services in conjunction with the provision of public assistance benefits.  Low-income citizens are less likely to own a car and are among the least likely to register to vote at motor vehicle departments, making the public assistance requirement crucial in reaching these citizens.   In enacting the NVRA, Congress expressly recognized that the right to vote "is a fundamental right," and took note of the disproportionate harm to voter participation by racial minorities caused by discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures.

In July 2009, plaintiffs filed suit against New Mexico state officials based on their failure to offer voter registration at public assistance and motor vehicle offices in the State.   Plaintiffs include individual public assistance and motor vehicle office clients, and ACORN.  Plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, Project Vote, Advocates for Justice and Reform Now, and the firms of DLA Piper US and Freedman, Boyd, Hollander, Goldberg & Ives.

This lawsuit is part of an ongoing coalitional effort by the Lawyers' Committee, Demos, and Project Vote to ensure that states fully carry out their responsibility under the NVRA to offer voter registration at public assistance offices.  On the same day that the New Mexico lawsuit was filed, the Lawyers' Committee and its partners filed suit against state officials in Indiana to remedy that State's failure to comply with the NVRA at public assistance offices.   The Lawyers' Committee and its partners previously sued Missouri officials (ACORN v. Scott), which was resolved through the entry of a preliminary injunction and then a comprehensive settlement, and Ohio officials (Harkless v. Brunner), which is being litigated in the federal trial court in Ohio.

On July 1, 2010, Plaintiffs in our New Mexico suit entered into a settlement with the State's motor vehicle department and the Secretary of State to remedy New Mexico's failure to offer voter registration at motor vehicle offices.  The settlement includes requirements that the State: adopt new procedures to ensure that all applicants for driver's licenses and state identification cards are offered the opportunity to register to vote; conduct training for state employees on the new procedures; collect data to track performance under the settlement and report these data regularly to Plaintiffs' counsel; and monitor compliance and implement corrective measures when needed.  The settlement will remain in effect until July 2014.  

In the public assistance portion of the case, the Court found on December 21 that the State is violating the NVRA because its policy is to provide voter registration forms to public assistance clients only if the clients make an affirmative request to register to vote. The Court ruled that the NVRA requires that registration forms must be provided to clients as a matter of course, unless a client chooses to "opt out" of registration by declining in writing to register.  The Court also denied motions by the defendants to dismiss the case, finding that there are ongoing issues about the State's past noncompliance with the NVRA and that the Secretary of State has responsibility to see that the State's public assistance offices comply with the NVRA.

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