News of Note: Coalition and New Jersey Officials Improve Voter Registration Opportunities in the State

Voting rights advocates and New Jersey officials announced today that they have reached a settlement to ensure low-income citizens are provided voter registration services through public assistance agencies, as required by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). New Jerseyans will be able to access these registration options in advance of the 2016 presidential elections.

Commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law, the NVRA requires motor vehicle agencies—as well as public assistance agencies that provide services such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other benefits—to proactively offer voter registration services to their clients. Since the implementation of the NVRA in 1993, over 170 million Americans have applied to get on the voter rolls through these registration services.

The settlement follows a notice letter to the governor and Department of Human Services (DHS) from Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, the NAACP, and the law firm of McCarter & English. The coalition’s notice letter, sent on behalf of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP, alleged that New Jersey’s public assistance agencies were not consistently offering clients on SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid an opportunity to register to vote.

“Equal access to the political process is a core American value,” said Scott Novakowski, counsel at Demos and an attorney in the case. “New Jersey has worked with us to ensure that all eligible citizens are offered voter registration opportunities when they interact with New Jersey’s public assistance agencies.”

After the notice letter, the groups worked with the state to customize a plan that meaningfully complies with Section 7 of the NVRA. The settlement includes the following highlights:

  • Medicaid will automatically provide voter registration opportunities to clients who apply for benefits, renew benefits, or submit a change of address.
  • Clients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will receive a voter registration application when they apply for benefits, renew benefits, or submit a change of address in person, online, over the telephone, or by mail.
  • Elections officials will monitor New Jersey public assistance agencies to ensure the required voter registration services are provided, and will address any issues in a timely manner.

“Voter registration through public assistance offices is crucial, because it reaches eligible citizens who are less likely to register through other means,” said Niyati Shah, election counsel at Project Vote. “We’re very glad that New Jersey public assistance clients will now be able to register, as the NVRA requires, whether they go to an office in person or complete their business online.”

The settlement agreement will be effective immediately, through December 31, 2018. According to Frank Askin, of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, “this agreement expands upon previous efforts by the state to fully implement the NVRA, not only at motor vehicle offices, but robustly at public assistance agencies as well.”

“Compliance with the NVRA is critical to ensuring that all eligible citizens have access to voter registration opportunities across New Jersey,” said Eileen O’Connor, Senior Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee. “This agreement will help guarantee that clients at New Jersey’s public assistance agencies, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities, have the opportunity to register or update their registration in time to participate in this year’s election.”

“As we approach the 2016 President Election, NVRA compliance is crucial,” said Richard T. Smith, President of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP. “This settlement ensures compliance, and it empowers marginalized communities by maximizing voter registration and participation.”

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