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Court revives Nevada welfare office voter registration suit

Updated Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015 | 2:28 p.m.

A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit saying Nevada public assistance offices weren't doing enough to help low-income clients register to vote.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday overturned a lower court's move to dismiss the lawsuit over technical issues. The case, which was originally filed by NAACP branches in Reno and Las Vegas and the National Council of La Raza, will be reassigned to a new judge.

"We applaud the decision, and we think it's an important victory for civil rights groups who know how important the vote is," said National Council of La Raza Vice President Eric Rodriguez, who added that the move was especially important in Nevada, with its growing Hispanic voter bloc and much-watched Senate race. "Efforts to restrict registration and suppress it really run counter to American values."

The three civil rights groups sued the Nevada Secretary of State and the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, saying Nevada public assistance offices weren't complying with a federal law that aimed at increasing voter registration among the poor.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires welfare and food stamp offices to distribute voter registration materials to people who apply for benefits, and to help people fill out the forms if needed. It's aimed at closing a wide voter registration gap between the rich and the poor by reaching out to people who might not have contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles — a traditional hub for voter registration.

Plaintiffs said compliance at Nevada public assistance offices was spotty. They pointed out that voter registration forms coming from the offices dropped 95 percent from a high point in 2001-2002 to a low point in 2009-2010, even though food stamp applications quadrupled during that period.

A survey the plaintiffs conducted found that clerks in seven of nine public assistance offices provided the materials only upon request and not in every case, and that two of the nine offices didn't have the forms at all. Among 51 clients surveyed, only nine said they received voter registration forms along with other benefit-application materials.

The civil rights organizations argued that they had to spend more of their own money to register poor voters because the state was slacking off.

A district judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the plaintiffs didn't have standing to sue because they hadn't shown they were directly harmed by the state's actions. He also questioned their timeline for filing their complaint, and he rejected their argument that the lax voter registration efforts were still going on months after the plaintiffs conducted their survey.

A three-judge appeals court panel, which heard the case in March, disagreed with the dismissal and took the unusual step of ordering the case reassigned to a new lower court judge. Rodriguez said that was a clear victory for groups like his, which registers voters and wants authority to bring such cases to the fore.

"It sends a very important signal that efforts to prevent organizations that do nonpartisan voter registration will not be viewed lightly by the courts," he said.

Representatives from the NAACP and the Nevada Secretary of State's Office didn't return messages seeking comment about the decision.

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