Pennsylvania settles lawsuit over voter registration

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HARRISBURG -- The state has settled a lawsuit with the Pittsburgh-based Black Political Empowerment Project and another advocacy group who claimed public assistance agencies were not fulfilling their obligation to help clients register to vote.

The state did not admit any violation of the federal law requiring welfare agencies in most states to provide voter registration forms, and help completing them, to people seeking aid.

But it agreed that county assistance offices and the offices administering a nutritional program for women and children will distribute a voter registration form with each application for public assistance, unless the applicant declines. It also agreed that public welfare forms would be updated to fully comply with the law.

The advocacy groups filed suit in July in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against the secretaries of the commonwealth, public welfare and health. The complaint claimed that violations of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 could be seen in a decline in the number of voters registered at public assistance offices. The offices received 4,179 voter registration applications in 2009 and 2010, down from 59,462 registrations in 1995 and 1996, the court filing said.

The settlement says the state will report monthly for three years to the parties who brought the lawsuit on the numbers of public assistance transactions conducted and voter registration forms distributed. The agencies involved are charged with investigating potential problems, such as public assistance offices with unusually low voter registration rates. The state also agreed it will conduct site visits of public assistance offices for compliance with the voter registration law.

When the suit was filed, a spokesman for the Department of State said concerns previously had been raised about the federal registration law but that the administration believed it was in compliance.

Pennsylvania residents must register by Oct. 9 to vote in the November election.

electionspa - state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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