Secretary of State vows to fight and says the law is set up to “ensure controversy”

ACORN’s Project Vote affiliate has joined with the NAACP to advance a “motor voter” lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration in tandem with a separate filing from President Obama’s Justice Department.

But Louisiana government officials who have been named in both lawsuits deny any concerted effort has been made to disenfranchise minorities and low income voters. They also vow to mount a vigorous defense on behalf of the state’s public assistance agencies, which are required to make voter registration forms available.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) announced that it was filing suit against Louisiana for alleged violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” a few days after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secured an important legal victory.

A federal court ruled that a separate “motor voter” legal case filed by the NAACP can proceed. The DOJ announced its suit on July 12 and the ruling in favor of the NAACP was issued on July 21.

“The timing of the Justice Department’s lawsuit is suspicious, raising the prospect that it is working with a special interest group for mutual partisan purposes, Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity observed.  “There have been other instances over the years of the Justice Department doing the NAACP’s bidding in voting matters, and the politicization of the Justice Department in the Obama administration, in particular, has been widely criticized.”

In their motion to dismiss the NAACP complaint, Louisiana officials argued that the civil rights group had no legal standing to enforce compliance with the “motor voter” law because it had not suffered any injury. In response, the NAACP said that it was forced to expend resources in an effort to remedy the state’s alleged violations and that it did in fact suffer injury as a result.  U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk agreed and cited a previous case involving ACORN, which is known in full as the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now.

Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) “routinely fail to distribute voter registration applications and fail to provide assistance in completing those applications to persons who apply for assistance,” according to the NAACP complaint.

“The court’s ruling affirms what plaintiffs have maintained throughout this litigation,” Nicole Zeitler, the director of public agency voter registration for Project Vote, said. “This lawsuit has demonstrated clear violations of the federal law, and that the NAACP is a proper party to bring this lawsuit as one of the organizations that has had to pick up the burden of voter registration.”

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Tom Schedler this past January, the NAACP, Project Vote and Ronald Wilson, a New Orleans attorney, claim they accumulated “substantial evidence” that demonstrates Louisiana has failed to meet its obligations under the NRVA.

“For example, the most recent report to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reveals that Louisiana public assistance agencies collected only 8,688 voter registration applications in 2007-2008, they wrote. “This represents an 88% decline since 1995-1996, when Louisiana reported 74,636 registrations from public assistance offices.”

But Schedler, who is also named as a defendant in both lawsuits, sees considerable gamesmanship at work with regard to the use of statistics. In reality, Louisiana has taken a “proactive approach” toward voter registration, which has yielded tangible dividends, he said. The most recent U.S. census data shows the state is ranked fourth in the entire country in terms of voter registration with 78.4 percent of the eligible electorate registered to vote.

Contrary to what the plaintiffs have argued in the NAACP case, there is very little, if any evidence, that shows the state’s health and welfare workers have deliberately neglected their responsibilities under the law.

“It would be ridiculous for me to say that 100 percent of the time those employees whose primary job function is something other than voter registration never forget to ask if someone seeking services would like to get registered,” Schedler said. “But we make every effort to ensure the materials are distributed and if someone is not interested we have to get a signed affidavit that shows the offer was made but they declined.”

Unfortunately, the “motor voter” law has been set up to “ensure controversy” and to advance a political agenda, Schedler suggested. The population that seeks out social services is not treated in the same statistical manner as other potential voters. If someone comes into a social welfare agencies 10 times, then they must be asked if they would like to register all 10 times and not just once, he explained.

“I think it’s time for someone in the states to stand up against this foolishness coming out of Washington D.C.,” he said. “With all the challenges we have today, I find it hard to believe that our federal officials have nothing better to do than filing these kinds of suits. I also resent the idea that our workers who are trying to provide someone with a financial benefit or with Medicaid services are somehow not doing their job. I’m not going to surrender; we will fight this. It is patently unfair.”

Schedler is up for election this coming November and will be running against Caroline Fayard, a Democratic attorney from New Orleans. Schedler was appointed as secretary of state in November of last year when his predecessor Jay Dardenne was elected lieutenant governor.

“I don’t know if this is the single worst thing I can do electorally, or if it’s the single best thing I can do, electorally, I just haven’t thought about it in those terms. I do know that people in the state from across party lines want me to make a stand against the nonsense coming out of Washington D.C.”

DHH’s Executive Counsel Stephen Russo concurs with Schedler’s assessment.

“We take our responsibility to the people of Louisiana very seriously,” he said. “DHH is in compliance with federal mandates as they relate to the National Voter Registration Act.”

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, is keen on the idea of Louisiana pushing back against DOJ and the concurrent NAACP filing. The statistics cited by the NAACP, Project Vote and Obama Administration officials overlook key facts, he observed.

For starters, he points out that most individuals get registered to vote at their state’s division of motor vehicles, not at social services agencies. Moreover, the welfare reform legislation that was signed into law in 1996 as part of the “Contract with America” resulted in a significant drop across the country in the number of applicants across the country, von Spakovsky noted.

“I doubt there is any real evidence that Louisiana’s welfare offices have not been providing people with the opportunity to register to vote,” he said. “All they have is statistical data that is very much in dispute and which ignores important factors such as impact of welfare reform.”

The DOJ complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana accuses state officials of failing to provide voter registration services at public assistance offices on a routine basis and closely parallels the NAACP suit. But it is also short on specifics.

“The voting process begins with registration,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Therefore, it is essential that all citizens have unfettered access to voter registration opportunities. The department is committed to enforcing the National Voter Registration Act so that neither income nor disability status stands in the way of equal voter registration opportunities for all citizens.”

There is a strong nexus that exists between President Obama’s appointees to the DOJ and the liberal advocacy groups such as the NAACP and others that favor certain types of lawsuits, von Spakovsky explained.

“They don’t see themselves as representing the American government or the American citizens,” he said. They see themselves basically as government paid advocates for these types of organizations.”

He added:

“This is the most political Justice Department I have ever seen. Politics is driving a hundred percent of the decision making on these lawsuits; it’s all politics all the time.”

When the DOJ lawyers sat down with their Louisiana counterparts to discuss the allegations they declined to offer up any tangible evidence, Schedler recalled.

“Their whole attitude was ‘trust us, we are the Justice Department’ and that’s when our people decided it was time to end the meeting,” he said. “They wanted us to relent and to sign consent agreements and we are not going to do that.”

President Obama has a long history with ACORN and Project Vote that provides important insight into the political motivations standing behind the lawsuits aimed against Louisiana, Matthew Vadum, a senior editor with Capital Research Center (CRC) said. Back in 1992, the future president directed voter registration for Project Vote. Obama also served as “ACORN’s lead attorney” in a “motor voter” case filed against then Republican Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois in 1995, he points out.

Although Obama’s presidential campaign operatives claimed Project Vote was not a part of the ACORN network at that time, the facts say otherwise, according Vadum’s new book entitled: “Subversion: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts are still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers.”

“To say Obama worked for Project Vote but didn’t work for ACORN is nothing but word games,” he wrote. “There is no wall of separation between the two. On registration and mobilization campaigns, ACORN and Project Vote work together to the point where it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference. They share staff, office space and money.”

Although ACORN has been set back by scandals, the network has reconstituted itself under different names and could be back in full force for the 2012 presidential race, Vadum warns. Several ACORN affiliates are listed as being “active” by the Secretary of State’s Office. They include the ACORN Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, ACORN International, the ACORN Legal Education Advocacy and Defense Fund and A Community Voice.

Kevin Mooney is the capital bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.