Appeals court examines state’s voter-registration obligations

A federal appeals court is considering whether Louisiana must help its poor citizens on public assistance register to vote when they interact with state agencies online, over the telephone or through the mail.

If a lower court ruling from early this year is overturned, an ever-growing share of people who register online won’t be granted the protections guaranteed by the National Voter Registration Act, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler wants the court to overturn a ruling by U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo that Louisiana violated federal election law by failing to make registration opportunities available through the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Department of Children and Family Services.

The suit was filed in 2011 by Luther Scott Jr. and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Attorneys for Schedler argued that voter registration assistance is required only for people who show up in person and that Schedler’s office is not responsible for the conduct of agencies not under its control.

But attorney Natasha M. Korgaonkar, who represents the NAACP and Scott, told the court that a narrow interpretation would have the “absurd” result of carving out most of the people the law was created to protect, noting that 88 percent of Medicaid interactions are done remotely.

Judge Jerry E. Smith was one of two members of the panel who pointed to the phrases “in person” and “here today” in the law and asked how they could be construed as applying to remote transactions.

Korgaonkar said the phrase “in person” is not found in a section of the law that outlines how it should be applied, and that “here today,” which is, does not necessarily imply an in-person visit.

She said the sections can be viewed harmoniously under the broad interpretation she said was intended by Congress, and that those phrases apply to agencies’ dealings with citizens in specific instances within the broader context of the law, not how the law applies to the agencies themselves.

Judge E. Grady Jolly, however, said it seemed that “in person” was intended specifically to ensure the state doesn’t have to act as an “agent of the NAACP.”

Jolly and Smith also questioned whether the plaintiffs have legal standing in the case.

Jolly pressed attorney Sarah Brannon about how the NAACP could claim to have been affected by any alleged failings of the state under the law. Brannon replied that the civil rights organization was forced to apply its meager resources for voter registration in more areas because of the state’s failure to uphold its legal obligation to help register voters.

Jolly was skeptical on that count as well, saying he saw no concrete evidence the NAACP diverted resources, and noting it would still have to do the work of knocking on doors to find out whether residents were registered or not.

Brannon replied that if the group had found a higher percentage of registered voters, it could have put its money into get-out-the-vote campaigns or focus less on low-income African-Americans.