Five voter-rights groups say that Arkansas’ public assistance agencies are failing to properly provide voter registration opportunities required by the National Voter Registration Act.
In a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Mark Martin, they urged him “to take immediate steps, in conjunction with the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS), to bring the State into full compliance.”
The New York and Washington, D.C., based groups — NAACP, Project Vote, the Proskauer Rose law firm, public policy group Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — said in the letter that they would sue to enforce the federal requirements.
Several of those groups also signed on to a 2012 letter to Martin advising him that several state agencies were in violation of the law, which requires agencies offering government public assistance such as Medicaid or food stamps to provide potential recipients with an opportunity to register to vote.
Sarah Brannon, the director of the Government Agency Voter Registration Program with Project Vote, said the group sent investigators to seven DHS benefit offices in Little Rock, Fayetteville, Fort Smith and Pine Bluff over the summer to see if the state had fixed the issues the group had identified in 2012. She said that while all of the offices had voter registration forms available, only the Fort Smith office followed the law by handing a voter registration application to every applicant.
“When we sent [Arkansas] the letter in 2012, we did not have immediate communication from them, but the secretary of state along with the Department of Human Services made a change and initiated a new policy,” Brannon said. “They created a really good document that went a long way toward making sure people applying for benefits in Arkansas were getting the services intended by the National Voter Registration Act.”
Brannon said the test of the county offices this summer was disappointing.
“We are just concerned with whether people in the field are carrying through with what the department is intending,” she said.
Laura Labay, spokesman for Martin’s office, said the office is looking into the complaints and will work with DHS to correct problems, if they exist.
Kate Luck, the DHS spokesman, said agency staff members met Friday to discuss the letter and steps the agency needs to take to comply with the law.
“We want to be in compliance and do what we can do to improve moving forward,” Luck said. “We are going to work for more consistency and training at the county offices. We have a training event [later] in September for county office staff. Part of that training will include making sure they know the law and that they are following the requirements and giving the applications to everyone.”
Before the 2012 letter, agency staff members would ask applicants seeking public benefits if they wanted registration information, but the law requires the information to be given out regardless of whether it is requested.
The new procedural rules written in 2012 require that new applicants be given a voter registration document if they apply by mail or in person, or digital access if they apply online. The agency also includes a voter registration form with benefit renewal reminders that are mailed each year to clients.
According to data from DHS, of the 209,864 new applicants for benefits in the 2014 fiscal year, 37,164 filled out the voter registration forms provided by the department.