State sued over voter registration

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The Black Political Empowerment Project has joined Action United, formerly ACORN, in filing suit against the heads of three Pennsylvania government departments, claiming they are violating federal voting laws by not assisting their clients to register to vote.

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TIM STEVENS

The lawsuit claims Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, Secretary of Welfare Gary Alexander and Secretary of Health Dr. Eli Avila failed to provide voter registration forms and assisting their low-income and Black clients with registration.

This, the suit claims, violates the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. During spot checks at state assistance offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they found “No registration forms in sight at all.”

While the suit notes that the problems started during the Rendell administration, it notes the Corbett administration has done no better. Voter registration done by the named offices has fallen from more than 59,000 in 1995 and 1996 to just over 4,000 in 2009 and 2010.

All public assistance offices, the lawsuit claims, are required to help clients register when they come in for any service, whether filing a benefit claim, recertifying their eligibility or even changing addresses.

Interviews conducted with applicants who actually requested voter registration forms and/or assistance on their paperwork, indicated that only half ever received a registration form.

In Pittsburgh the DPW office is divided into two sections; one for SNAP, cash assistance and medical assistance, and the other for distributing LIHEAP benefits. Only the LIHEAP office had registration forms.

Noting the upcoming presidential election, the lawsuit is asking for a quick resolution, ordering the offices into compliance with federal law.

B-PEP, the suit notes, diverted resources to cover voter registration the state should have done had it been in compliance with federal law. It also diverted resources to train Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Children, Youth and Families personnel on NVRA compliance, which should be the responsibility of the defendants.

Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State said he is not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the lawsuit.

“I am authorized to say that concerns have been raised for a number of years about NVRA compliance,” he said. “Both the prior administration and this administration believe we are in compliance, and we will defend this vigorously”

David Rubino, attorney for Demos, which is one of the law firms that filed the suit, said they took this action here and in other states due to the proximity of the national election.

“We’ve tried before to resolve these issues without filing a lawsuit, but that proved unsuccessful,” he said. “We are not seeking monetary damages. This is about training, about increasing awareness, and about the folks at the top understanding how the law is to be implemented.”

Tim Stevens, B-PEP chairman and CEO, called on the state government to fulfill its obligation.

“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,” he said. “The opportunity for political empowerment and the opportunity to vote in each and every election cannot be underestimated.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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