Friday, Sept. 14, 2012 | 10:30 a.m.
In the past month, Nevada’s public assistance agencies have aggressively stepped up their voter registration efforts — including mailing thousands of voter registration forms to welfare and food stamp recipients — following a federal lawsuit accusing the state of disenfranchising thousands of poor Nevadans.
The initiative could benefit Democratic candidates on the November ballot because many in the targeted population have historically voted Democratic.
The state’s new voter registration policies are detailed in memos issued by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this summer, after several civil rights groups sued Nevada for failing to meet federal and state laws that require public assistance offices to act also as voter registration centers.
The lawsuit argued that Nevada’s lax voter registration practices resulted in a dwindling number of Nevadans on public assistance registering to vote.
According to a July 31 memo obtained by the Las Vegas Sun, the Department of Health and Human Services recently began sending voter registration forms along with application forms to recipients whose public assistance benefits had to be renewed or updated. Sources say as many as 30,000 voter registration forms are sent each month.
Additionally, public assistance offices have posted signs informing clients they can register to vote on-site. They have also trained workers to help clients register to vote and are handing out registration forms with all other public assistance documents.
The efforts appear to have worked.
In the past five weeks, 1,105 voter registration applications have come in from welfare agencies in Clark County, according to the Registrar of Voters. That’s almost as many as those agencies collected in the previous seven months combined.
The registrar recorded no similar increase during the same period in the last presidential race.
Under federal law, state offices that provide government assistance, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — the program commonly known as welfare — also are voter registration offices.
But statistics gathered as part of the lawsuit by the National Council of La Raza and the Nevada NAACP chapters indicate Nevada’s public assistance agencies have failed in their voter registration tasks.
During the 2002 election cycle, Nevada’s welfare agencies collected nearly 40,000 voter registration applications. That number fell to just 1,677 applications in the 2010 election cycle, despite Nevada’s booming population and growing public assistance rolls during the Great Recession.
The lawsuit cited, in part, “Nevada’s ineffectual public assistance voter registration program” for the fact that less than half of low-income eligible voters were registered to vote. That’s compared with almost three-quarters of high-income eligible citizens who are registered to vote.
In December, the groups suing the state canvassed offices in Las Vegas, Carson City and Reno.
Of the 51 people they talked to, only 12 said they had been asked by office staff whether they wanted to register to vote. Of five clients who checked “yes” on the voter preference questions, only one received a voter registration application.
Workers told those suing the state it was standard procedure to only provide applications to clients who check “yes.” Federal and state law requires people to decline voter registration forms in writing.
One Las Vegas office serving women, infant and children had no voter registration forms for more than one year; another Las Vegas office had no forms for more than two years, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claimed most of the sites did not have signs posted that told people they could register to vote there, and none had instructions on how to register to vote.
Mary Woods, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, provided the updated policies but said she could not comment on past office practices because of the litigation. She also said she did not know the cost of implementing the new policies.
The federal court hearing for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for mid-October — after the deadline to register to vote - but both parties have agreed to vacate the hearing and proceed with discovery.
At the same time the state is implementing aggressive new voter registration policies, its lawyers are arguing the lawsuit filed by the civil rights groups is baseless.
The state filed motions to oppose the lawsuit and the preliminary injunction sought by the civil rights groups to change state policies instantly.
In its filing, the state argued that the public assistance agencies' policies complied with the National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993. Its forms all included a box people could check if they wanted to register to vote, and the law does not require caseworkers to verbally offer the service to clients.
The state also questioned the validity of the civil rights groups’ survey and the statistics they cited to argue that the old state policies were deficient.
The voter registration gap between the poor and rich - those making less than $25,000 a year versus those making more than $100,000 a year - is not because of any violations of federal laws, the state argued.
The gap in Nevada between the poor and wealthy are close to the national average. It "does not demonstrate - or even suggest - any causal link between this fact and any alleged non-compliance," the state argued.
The state argued that the nearly 40,000 voters registered in the 2001-2002 cycle was a "significant outlier" compared to other years, suggesting the figure is a clerical error. (Though in the other years, state public assistance agencies collected between 2,883 and 13,200 voter registration forms.)
The state also called the interviews and observation of the state workers "uncorroborated hearsay."
Representatives of La Raza and Demos, a liberal think tank that worked on the lawsuit, said they were not aware of any changes in state policy.
Matthew McClellan, director of issue and advocacy campaigns for La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country, said initially the lawsuit aimed to affect state policies this cycle.
“That was our definite goal,” he said. “Now, it’s more of a long-term, philosophical battle, that everyone has the opportunity to register to vote.”
The state’s more focused voter registration efforts also come less than two months before a presidential election that has been marked by a bitter debate over the role of government in providing public assistance.
Republican Mitt Romney has attacked President Barack Obama’s welfare policies and has criticized him for the spike in Americans who depend on public assistance.
Conservatives maintain the increase in welfare rolls are not only a sign of a weak economic recovery but reflect a differing view on the role of government.
Because Nevada is a key battleground state in both the presidential race and fight for control of the U.S. Senate, voter registration tallies here are watched closely.
Democrats have steadily out-registered Republicans since April and now hold a 55,716 registration advantage.
Voter registrars do not track the party affiliation of those who register at public assistance offices.
But the civil rights groups suing the state, including the National Council of La Raza, have been aligned with Democratic interests, and have participated in aggressive voter registration efforts in minority neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods typically vote Democratic.
Deputy Secretary of State Scott Gilles said the state’s primary objective is to encourage eligible voters to cast ballots.
“We applaud the governor and the Department of Health and Human Service’s efforts to ensure that every constituent that encounters Nevada’s DHHS is provided with an application to register to vote, which is consistent with federal law,” he said in a statement.
Gilles declined further comment. Secretary of State Ross Miller is a Democrat.
The new policies were implemented by Gov. Brian Sandoval’s administration. Sandoval is a Republican.
“Remember, the goal of this activity is to help our clients register to vote,” wrote Dianne Comeaux, administrator for the Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, in the July 31 memo.