Georgia signs off on voting suit settlement

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 20, 2012. 

The state of Georgia has settled a lawsuit by agreeing to provide the opportunity to register to vote every time people apply for public assistance benefits, a coalition of civil rights groups said Thursday.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who signed off on the agreement, condemned the litigation. He said the settlement will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with "outdated and unneeded federal voter registration mandates and in attorneys fees paid to venue-shopping interest groups."

The lawsuit alleged the state had been ignoring its obligations under the National Voter Registration Act. The settlement details procedures the state must follow for distributing voter registration applications to public assistance clients when they arrive in person or contact the Department of Human Services by phone, over the Internet or by mail.

The suit was filed against DHS and the secretary of state. The settlement, which includes $175,000 in fees for the plaintiffs' attorneys, requires approval by U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell. Filing suit were the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda and Craig Murphy, an Atlanta man who receives food stamps.

"This settlement is a positive step in the direction of voter empowerment, and away from the modern movement of voter suppression," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

"Voting is a fundamental right in the United States and we are pleased to assist in ensuring that it is available to all those who are eligible," added Neil Steiner, another lawyer in the case.

During the litigation, the Justice Department filed a "statement of interest" indicating it agreed with the plaintiffs' position.

In his statement, Kemp accused the Justice Department and interest groups of "conducting a full frontal assault on the rights of states to manage their elections processes in a fair and secure manner."

Georgia has complied with the law, Kemp said, but he noted Pannell had denied the state's motion to dismiss the suit.