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Missouri social-service agency and voting rights groups resolve court fight

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2009 - The Missouri Department of Social Services and several voting-rights groups, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), have reached a court settlement that backers say will guarantee that low-income clients will be given access to voter-registration forms when they visit state public-assistance offices. 

The settlement also calls for the state agency to pay the $450,000 in legal fees for the groups' lawyers.

Jeff Ordower, ACORN's Midwest director, praised the settlement and said today that the agreement ends the legal fight. ACORN and St. Louis resident Dionne O'Neal had filed the suit last year, alleging "widespread violations of the federal National Voter Registration Act" mandating voter-registration materials be made available to people who visit state offices for various services, from drivers licenses to food stamps.

Since last July, the state Department of Social Services had been complying with a court injunction requiring it to comply with the federal voting-rights mandates. The agreement announced today makes such access to voter-registration materials permanent.

Since that court order last July, “over 100,000 low-income Missouri citizens already have registered to vote at public assistance offices,'' said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Dēmos and a lawyer for the groups who filed the suit. “Other states across the country that have ignored the voting rights of low-income citizens for far too long should take note of Missouri’s example and bring their practices into compliance with the law.”

Later, the Department of Social Services issued the following statement:

The Department of Social Services is pleased with the outcome of this case. Significant gains have been made in our voter registration efforts, and many of the changes agreed to in this settlement have already been implemented. Today we are helping approximately 11,000 new voters register each month. We look forward to continuing to help Missouri's citizens gain a voice in their government in the years to come."

Ordower with ACORN said the suit was filed because, since at least 2003, many Missouri agencies weren't asking people if they were registered to vote, a query that is required under the federal voting-rights law.

Making voter-registration materials accessible to low-people is important, he said, in part because they tend to move frequently, which requires them in Missouri to re-register or update their registration.

"This is something that government should be doing, not ACORN,'' Ordower added. "We'd rather be focusing on voter rights than voter registration.''

ACORN has had its share of legal headaches when it comes to voter registrations, because of volunteer workers who have been prosecuted in Missouri and other states for turning in fraudulent registrations.

According to the settlement, each Department of Social Services' office is "to collect and report detailed monthly data on the numbers of persons visiting DSS offices, their responses to voter registration inquiries, the numbers of voter registrations completed and submitted to local election authorities, and other key information, and to provide this data monthly" to the lawyers for the voting-rights groups.

The settlement also requires that the agency:

  •  Designate an employee at each office to serve at its official voter-rights coordinator, and a statewide coordinator;
  • "Provide mandatory training of employees in voter registration duties using a uniform training program;"
  • "Provide voter registration applications with regular mailings to clients and in connection with transactions by phone or Internet, and to follow up with clients to provide voter registration services whenever it determines that a particular individual was not offered voter registration during a benefits transaction."

The voting rights groups noted that court ruling leading to the settlement had pointed out " 'substantial evidence' of voting rights violations," including:

  • "State documents confirming that over 1 million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered voter registration from 2003-2008 because DSS (Department of Social Services) did not order enough of the forms it is required to give each client;
  • "E-mails from one county DSS office showing that voter registration applications completed by clients had been permitted to pile up for an entire year without being turned in to the local election authority for processing."

The Missouri Republican Party issued a statement condemning the $450,000 payment.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.