Advocacy groups accuse state of violating federal voter law

Thursday, August 23, 2007 | 10:26 p.m. CDT; updated 12:06 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A study released Thursday by ACORN, Demos and Project Vote chronicles what the groups allege is a lack of compliance by the state of Missouri with a provision of the National Voter Registration Act.

ACORN, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and the other groups, citing Census data on voter registration and observations made at offices of the Missouri Department of Social Services in May 2007, allege the state is doing too little to comply with the law. They will file a lawsuit against the Social Services Department if compliance does not improve within 90 days, in accordance with federal law, according to a Thursday news release.

Section 7 of the voter registration act requires that states offer voter registration to people when they visit public assistance agencies. The intent is to encourage more people with disabilities or with lower incomes to register and vote. Also known as the Motor Voter Law, the act is best known for requiring voter registration services at offices that deal with motor vehicle licensing.

According to the study, the number of voters registered through social services agencies in Missouri has fallen to one-tenth of what it was when the law was first enacted. By contrast, the percentage of voters registered through the Department of Motor Vehicles has remained steady for the duration of the law’s existence.

The Department of Social Services issued a short news release late Thursday, maintaining that “it believes it is in full compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and has been since its inception.”

Department Director Deborah Scott could not be reached for comment, and the public relations staff could not answer questions about the issue.

ACORN worked in conjunction with Project Vote and Demos on the study, released as a part of the NVRA Implementation Project — a nonpartisan effort to enforce section 7 of the Voter Registration Act.

The study also claims a great discrepancy in registrations between counties. Despite being home to only 2 percent of the state’s population, for example, Boone County as of July 2006 accounted for 7 percent of the state voter registrations received through the Missouri Department of Social Services.

A representative of the department had no explanation for the discrepancy across counties.

Douglas Hess, a consultant for the NVRA Implementation Project, noted that Boone County could be looked to as a model for the rest of Missouri, although he acknowledged the county had not been studied in depth.

“Boone, Jackson and Franklin (counties) are good examples, but I’m not sure if there’s not room for improvement,” he said. “Boone County has often been the leader in voter registration practices, as Missouri was when the law was first enacted.”

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, whose office oversees elections and voter registration rolls, could not be reached for comment.

The NVRA Implementation Project cited an 80 percent decline nationwide in voters registered through social service agencies between 1995 and 2006. In response to that trend, the organization has worked with several states to help achieve compliance with federal law. North Carolina and Iowa were two examples of success stories given by project officials during a noon conference call on Thursday.

Brian Mellor, senior counsel for Project Vote, said the Secretary of State's Office had previously notified the Department of Social Services that it was failing to comply with the NVRA and had sought a meeting with department officials.

The Department of Social Services in its own news release on Thursday questioned ACORN’s integrity.

“ACORN is an organization whose credibility has been tainted by the fact that several of their workers have been indicted for voter fraud,” the release said. “We would have concerns that ACORN might engage in unlawful activities in DSS offices to commit voter fraud and Director Scott has asked for an immediate investigation.” Before the midterm elections of 2006, the St. Louis City Board of Election Commissioners charged that ACORN submitted at least 1,500 potentially fraudulent voter registration cards, according to the Associated Press.

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