Federal court finds election law violations in Louisiana

A federal district judge found that Louisiana violated federal election law by failing to make voter registration opportunities widely available at public assistance offices run by two state agencies.

The ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Jane Triche Milazzo, of New Orleans, came in a lawsuit filed in early 2011 by Luther Scott and the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP over state compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, called NVRA. Scott had not been given an opportunity to register to vote in several encounters with public assistance agencies.

“Prior to April 2011, the defendants were in violation of the NVRA mandates. Since the filing of this lawsuit, however, the defendants have made substantial progress in complying with the NVRA,” Milazzo wrote.

Milazzo gave Secretary of State Tom Schedler, state Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein and state Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Suzy Sonnier to certify compliance to the court by March 15.

Milazzo said she would retain jurisdiction over the issue for the next year.

“Yesterday’s ruling means that Louisiana will finally be required to comply with federal law, and that the state must help our most vulnerable fellow citizens register to vote,” said Dale Ho, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“It’s a great day in Louisiana for voting rights,” said Ernest Johnson, of Baton Rouge and national board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Schedler said Louisiana is “doing all the right things.” He noted 84 percent of people eligible to vote in Louisiana are registered, which is the fourth highest percentage in the nation.

“The judge says that Louisiana has made substantial progress in this area,” Schedler said.

Schedler said he disagreed with Milazzo’s finding that he is responsible for the conduct in other agencies that are not under his control.

Schedler said he also disagrees with a finding that the voter registration must be offered not only in-person but those who have public assistance encounters over the Internet, by telephone or mail.

Milazzo wrote that each agency had taken steps since the lawsuit was filed, including ensuring training of employees who work in the Medicaid, food stamp and other offices get training and that procedures are in place involving voter registration.

The plaintiffs had claimed that despite high numbers of participants in Louisiana food stamp and Medicaid programs, voter registration applications from those offices have been low. They said voter registration applicants from those agencies had dropped 88 percent been 1995 and 2008.