By Megan Messerly
Voting rights advocates and the state of Nevada settled a lawsuit today over the state's implementation of a federal law aimed at registering low-income voters.
Under terms of the settlement, the state's Department of Health and Human Services will provide each of its clients a voter registration application, help them fill out the forms and send the applications to state election officials.
The department administers benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, cash assistance, Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to low-income Nevadans.
"Every step we take to assist all eligible Americans to become voters is a sound step," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "That's what the (National Voter Registration Act) is all about, and today's agreement will help more Nevadans have access to registration and to the opportunity to make their voices heard in the voting booth."
The lawsuit was brought by the National Council of La Raza and NAACP branches in Reno and Las Vegas in 2012.
The groups sued the Nevada secretary of state and the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming the state was failing to register voters at public assistance agencies as required under federal law.
The law -- the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 -- specifically targets low-income voters by requiring voter registration materials to be distributed at welfare offices.
The plaintiffs in the case argued the state was not appropriately complying with that law. Data gathered by the parties in the lawsuit showed that, in 2002, welfare agencies in the state collected nearly 40,000 voter registration applications, compared to only 1,677 in the 2010 election cycle.
The plaintiffs argued those numbers should have been higher, given the growing demand for public assistance during the recession.
"It's taken years of litigation and negotiation to get where we are today," said Scott Novakowski, an attorney at the liberal think tank Demos who worked on the case. "We're pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that ensures low-income Nevadans now have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process."
The case was initially dismissed in 2012 by a District Court judge who said that the plaintiffs had not been directly harmed by the state's actions and, therefore, did not have grounds for a lawsuit. In September, a federal appeals court overturned the dismissal, and the case was reassigned to a different lower-court judge.
Details of the settlement specify that the Department of Health and Human Services has to offer voter registration services no matter how they are interacting with a client -- in person, online or over the phone.
It also requires the department, the Secretary of State's Office and each local office of the department to assign oversight of voter registration to one of their staff members and provide regular training to employees who work with clients.
The department and the Secretary of State's Office will monitor compliance with the law through a system of data tracking and analysis, according to the settlement.
In response to the settlement, the plaintiffs on Friday filed for a dismissal of the case in federal court, though they asked the judge, Miranda Du, to retain jurisdiction to resolve any disputes that arise over the settlement.
The Secretary of State's Office and the Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Though the lawsuit has been resolved, the Secretary of State's Office is still facing claims the state is violating a different part of the same federal law requiring voter registration at state Department of Motor Vehicles offices.
Some of the same groups involved with this lawsuit sent a pre-litigation letter to the Secretary of State's Office and the state's DMV last week, claiming the state is requiring more work from voter registration applicants than the federal law allows. Under the law, driver's license applicants who want to register to vote are only supposed to be required to fill out one application instead of providing duplicate information on two separate forms.
Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske said last week that her office is reviewing the information and has been communicating with the DMV for several months to establish a timeline to modernize the agency's voter registration system.
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