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New Mexico Settles Lawsuit, Agrees to Implement “Motor Voter” Law Print E-mail

Voter Registration will be offered at MVD Offices following settlement of lawsuit by coalition of voting rights groups

JULY 7, 2010

ALBUQUERQUE, NM -- Tens of thousands of New Mexico residents who visit state motor vehicle offices will be able to register to vote or update their voter registration information, thanks to a settlement agreement reached last week in a lawsuit to bring the state’s Motor Vehicle Division into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. The agreement resolves a lawsuit brought against state officials by voting rights groups Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Dēmos, as well as by the law firms of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, DLA Piper LLP (US), and Advocates for Justice and Reform Now, PC.

Filed in July 2009, the lawsuit charged that New Mexico was failing to comply with the NVRA, a federal civil rights law that requires motor vehicle offices and public assistance agencies to offer voter registration services to their clients. Defendants named in the suit include New Mexico’s Secretary of State, Mary Herrera, and officials from the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, and the New Mexico Human Services Department.

“The NVRA was enacted to ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to register to vote,” said Nicole Kovite, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote. “By ignoring this vital law, New Mexico was denying this right to thousands of its residents every year.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of state residents Celia Valdez, Graciela Grajeda, Shawna Allers, and Jesse Rodriguez, all of whom applied for various licenses and benefits at these agencies but were not asked if they wanted to register to vote or to update their voter registration information, as required by the NVRA.

“We are pleased that New Mexico has joined with the plaintiffs in developing a comprehensive agreement to assure full implementation of the NVRA at motor vehicle offices,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “Thousands of New Mexico residents now will have the opportunity to register to vote simultaneously with applying for a driver’s license or a state identification card.”

Evidence submitted by plaintiffs included the extremely low numbers of registration applications submitted by state MVD offices—less than 3,000 total in 2007-2008—and the results of surveys and investigations that found an astonishing 80% of MVD offices were violating the NVRA.

The settlement requires the Motor Vehicle Division to implement a set of reforms to offer voter registration services to every resident who applies for a driver’s license or state ID card. The MVD must update computer systems, websites, training practices, monitoring, reporting, and other oversight details to offer voter registration with the same degree of assistance as any other MVD license, identification card, or renewal. The Secretary of State will designate a State NVRA Coordinator to oversee statewide compliance, and a local NVRA Coordinator will be assigned to every MVD office. Signs will be posted in MVD offices to inform the public that voter registration services are available, and the Secretary of State website and MVD websites will be updated to include additional voter registration information.

“We are pleased that several years of hard work has resulted in this favorable outcome for New Mexico’s citizens, who may now benefit from the same access to voter registration services at motor vehicle offices that citizens of other states have enjoyed for years,” stated Cindy Ricketts, a Phoenix-based Litigation Partner of DLA Piper LLP (US), who has led that law firm’s pro bono work on the matter since plaintiffs’ counsel began their investigation in 2007.

Arthur Z. Schwartz, Executive Director of Advocates for Justice and Reform Now, noted that "the lawsuit was originally brought on behalf of ACORN, which served as a plaintiff until it shut down operations in New Mexico earlier this year. This settlement, and the expanded voting rights opportunities it creates, are part of its legacy.”

While the case related to MVD offices has been settled, the suit also addresses the state’s failure to comply with another section of the NVRA, which requires that public assistance agencies provide registration services to their clients. In the 2007-2008 election, officials received less than 1,500 registration applications from public assistance offices, despite the fact that the average number of adult participants in the Food Stamp program alone was over 103,000 per month in New Mexico. The case related to these claims is still ongoing.

“We applaud New Mexico’s MVD for this agreement, but it is equally important to ensure that voter registration services are provided to citizens who may not visit motor vehicle offices,” said Allegra Chapman, counsel for Dēmos. “All designated state agencies – including public assistance offices serving low-income persons – should follow MVD’s lead and ensure full compliance with the law.”

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Contacts:

Nicole Kovite, Project Vote (202) 546-4173 ext. 303

Allegra Chapman, Dēmos, (212) 419-8772

Stacie Royster, Lawyers’ Committee, (202) 662-8317

Arthur Schwartz, Advocates for Justice and Reform Now, (917) 923-8136

Ashley Yahn, DLA Piper LLP, (312) 252-4112

David Urias, Freeman, Boyd, Hollander, Goldberg & Ives, (505) 842-9960

 

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