News Detail

Dechert Protects Minority, Low-Income Voters’ Rights in Election Year Cases
July 2, 2012
Dechert News Release

Dechert lawyers have recently taken a lead role as pro bono counsel on behalf of low-income and minority voters in five major voting rights cases throughout the United States. The outcomes of these cases could result in a significant number of new voter registrations, making a significant impact on this fall’s elections.

Challenges to Voter Identification Laws

Dechert is currently litigating cases in Texas and Wisconsin challenging those states’ voter registration laws on behalf of low-income and minority citizens.

In Texas, the firm is representing the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives in urging the federal court to reject a proposed law that would require Texas voters to present limited types of photo identification at the polls. Texas has filed suit before a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking approval of the changes in its voter identification law. Texas bears the burden of proving that the new law does not have either a discriminatory purpose or the effect of discriminating against minorities voting on account of race, ethnicity or language. The two organizations represented by Dechert, as well as the Department of Justice and other civil rights groups, contend that the new law erects unnecessary and discriminatory barriers to voting and would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of African Americans and Latinos in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The case is scheduled for trial on July 9, 2012.

Dechert lawyers Ezra Rosenberg, Michelle Yeary, Amy Rudd, Brian Raphel, Lindsey Stelcen, Scott Taggart and Kate Ericcson, along with the Brennan Center for Justice, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the national office of the NAACP, the Law Office of Jose Garza, and the Law Offices of Gary L. Bledsoe, are representing the Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in this matter.

In Wisconsin, another Dechert team is representing a class of voters without state-issued photo identification in challenging Wisconsin’s Photo ID law as unconstitutional as applied to them and as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it unfairly disenfranchises African American and Latino voters. Dechert is co-counsel with the ACLU of Wisconsin, the ACLU Voting Rights Project and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty on this litigation, which was filed against the Governor of Wisconsin and several other defendants in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. A motion for a preliminary injunction is pending, and trial is set for September.

The Dechert team advising on this matter includes Neil Steiner, Craig Falls, Diane Princ, Jaime Freedman, Joseph Tate (Staff Attorney), Rani Habash, Eric Cochran, Sean Murphy, Darren Goldman and Dan Bowers.

Enforcement of National Voter Registration Act

Dechert has also played a leading role in litigation over the scope of the National Voter Registration Act and in seeking to enforce the provisions of the NVRA that require states to offer voter registration through public assistance offices. Since its enactment by a bipartisan Congress in 1993, the NVRA has dramatically increased the number of eligible citizens who are registered to vote by making voter registration easier and more convenient. Specifically, the NVRA requires states to offer voter registration through both motor vehicle agencies (which is why it is frequently referred to as the “motor-voter” law) and public assistance offices, which helps ensure that low-income residents and others without drivers’ licenses also have an opportunity to register to vote.

Dechert has served as pro bono counsel in three NVRA cases, successfully resolving two of those cases -- against Ohio and Georgia -- and recently filing a third case against Nevada. These cases will likely result in hundreds of thousands of additional low-income citizens being properly registered to vote in this year’s elections.

In Ohio, Steiner and former Dechert lawyer Robert Topp represented two Ohio citizens receiving public assistance who had not been offered the opportunity to register to vote, and a not-for-profit organization, some of whose members also received public assistance, against Ohio’s Secretary of State and the Director of Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services. Serving as lead counsel in this matter, the Dechert team filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio to address the State’s failure to comply with Section 7 of the NVRA for more than a decade.

Following the defendants’ successful motion to dismiss the action in district court, the Dechert team appealed, securing a reversal of the decision in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit held, in a matter of first impression, that the NVRA requires state officials to ensure compliance with the federal law by political subdivisions of the State.

The defendants subsequently refused to admit the State’s noncompliance with the NVRA, leading Dechert to perform extensive discovery to establish both defendants’ and the local agencies’ noncompliance with Section 7. As a result of its discovery efforts, the Dechert team obtained a successful settlement of the action with a consent decree entered into late 2009, whereby the defendants agreed to make extensive changes to their procedures and oversight, including revising the public benefits application to include a voter registration application and revising the public benefits computer system to remind caseworkers to offer the opportunity to register to vote, and leading to the registration or change of address of more than 400,000 low-income Ohio citizens over the past two and a half years.

In Georgia, Dechert represented the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda in a lawsuit against Georgia’s Secretary of State and the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services to address the state’s failure to provide voter registration services at state public assistance offices, as required by the NVRA. The Dechert team filed a complaint in July 2011 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia setting forth extensive evidence of Georgia’s widespread ongoing noncompliance with Section 7 of the NVRA.

In January 2012, the court issued a decision rejecting defendants’ motion to dismiss and ruling that Georgia’s policies violated Section 7 of the NVRA’s requirements. Faced with another issue of first impression, District Judge Charles A. Panell, Jr. ruled that the NVRA applied not only to transactions at the public assistance office, but also to “remote” transactions -- those interactions that, with increasing frequency, occur by telephone, by mail and over the Internet. This ruling enabled the Dechert team to negotiate another favorable settlement, one that will lead to results this year and ensure that voter registration continues to be offered as states modernize their systems for processing public assistance requests.

Along with Steiner, Dechert lawyers Jamie Halavais, Darren Goldman, Sara Corris and David Stanoch, together with former Dechert lawyers Erica Becker and Regan Crotty, co-counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, Project Vote, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the voting rights groups.

In Nevada, a Dechert team is representing the National Council of La Raza, the Las Vegas Branch of the NAACP, and the Reno-Sparks Branch of the NAACP in an additional NVRA case. The Complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, alleges that Nevada’s Secretary of State and Director of the department of Health & Human Services have systematically failed to comply with the NVRA, specifically by failing to offer voter registration opportunities to citizens receiving public assistance services, and that these violations have harmed the members of the three civil rights organizations and have also forced the organizations to divert resources from other activities to voter registration drives in low-income neighborhoods.

Steiner, Halavais and Kate O’Keeffe are representing the voting rights organizations in this case, together with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, Project Vote, the NAACP, and the law firm Woodburn and Wedge LLP.