By: Kelsey Carpenter
An interesting case has just been remanded back to the United States District Court of Nevada by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called National Council of La Raza v. Cegavske (2015) regarding the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Specifically the plaintiffs challenge Nevada’s following of Section 7 of the NVRA. Section 7 states that voter registration opportunities must be provided by all offices that handle public assistance and services to disabled populations. This provision of the NVRA exists to protect previously disenfranchised low-income voters from being unable to register to vote.
The Circuit Court found that Judge Robert C. Jones’s judgment to strike down this case was “unusual,” and therefore has reassigned this case to another judge at the district level. The fact that a Circuit Court judge finds the ruling to be unusual might indicate the outcome of this remanded case, however the facts need to be discussed. The plaintiffs have been building their case to prove that low-income voters in Nevada are being disenfranchised. The plaintiffs conducted an investigation and visited nine public assistance offices. They found that seven of the nine offices provided voter registration forms only when requested, and the other two offices did not have registration documents at all. This appears to be a violation of Section 7 because these offices were not attempting to reach out to their vulnerable populations, and in two cases could not reach out to them at all. When all nine offices visited do not have the voter registration form readily available, there is an issue.
There have been a couple of cases that have tackled this Section 7 issue in the courts that may portend what will happen in Nevada. In United States v. State of Tennessee (2002), Tennessee was sued for not providing voting registration forms with applications for public assistance or disability services. Sound familiar? The court released a consent decree in 2002, and ordered the state to implement training programs for all administrators at public assistance or disability services facilities in order to ensure low-income Tennessee residents would be able to register to vote. In United States v. State of Rhode Island (2011), Rhode Island was sued for having state-funded public assistance offices and disability offices fail to offer voter registration opportunities. In a déjà vu scenario, the court entered into a consent decree in 2011 that required all public assistance and disability services facilities to go through training programs to register low-income voters. Both of these cases are eerily similar to Nevada’s case, so it will be interesting to see if a consent decree is in the state’s future.
The impact of this case could be huge. The turnout of eligible voters in Nevada in 2010 was well below the national average at 31.8%, and only nine states and the District of Columbia were worse off than Nevada. What’s even more striking is only 46.7% of low-income Nevada eligible voters registered to vote, while 72.4% of high-income eligible voters registered. Clearly there is a need for change. Nevada’s voter registration application submissions from public assistance offices have decreased by 95% in the past ten years, while the same decade saw an increase in the number of applicants for public assistance. This contradiction is what drew the National Council of La Raza to file the complaint in the first place. It will be interesting to see whether a new judge makes an impact on the outcome of this case and on the voter composition of Nevada.