Pennsylvania welfare offices begin reporting voter registration

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HARRISBURG -- The state has made its first monthly report of voter registrations at welfare offices after settling a lawsuit over its obligation to help clients join the electoral rolls.

The July tallies predate the settlement, reached in mid-August, so attorneys for the groups who brought the suit said the rates of voter registration would not reflect any changes made by public assistance agencies. The groups, including the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh, claimed state agencies were not fulfilling their obligation under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to provide registration forms and help people seeking public assistance to complete them.

The state did not admit any violation of the law, but it agreed to provide a voter registration form to every applicant for public assistance unless the person specifically declines. The lawsuit claimed state policy had called for the distribution of registration forms only when the person answered yes, when forms also should have been given to people who did not respond to the offer.

The settlement calls for the state to 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 first round of data shows most clients of program administered by the Department of Public Welfare and Department of Health declined to register to vote. In a compilation by the Department of State, the Department of Health reported it had served 27,738 people through the WIC nutrition program for women, infants and children. Of those people, 16,406 said they already were registered to vote, while 729 took voter registration applications and 162 completed applications for the agency to deliver.

The Department of Public Welfare reported it served 371,002 people in July at county assistance and other offices. Of those clients, 131,946 said they were registered to vote, while 9,707 took voter registration applications and 839 completed applications for delivery by the agency.

The lawsuit had claimed that failures to fully comply with the federal voter registration law had led to low numbers of voters registered by Pennsylvania public assistance agencies. The offices received 4,179 voter registration applications in 2009 and 2010, down from 59,462 registrations in 1995 and 1996, according to the complaint.

Sarah Brannon, an attorney with Project Vote and a lawyer in the case, said an increase in voter registrations could begin to show in the September report. Pennsylvania residents must register by Oct. 9 to vote in the November election.

Project Vote -- a nonprofit that encourages voter registration among low-income, minority and young people -- and partner organizations have settled lawsuits about voter registration by public assistance agencies in Ohio, Missouri, New Mexico, Georgia and Indiana, Ms. Brannon said, while litigation is pending in Massachusetts and Nevada. Where settlements have been implemented, voter registration typically reaches 10 percent to 20 percent of the clientele of assistance agencies, she said.

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Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141.


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