TWO FEDERAL judges approved an agreement Wednesday between voting-rights groups and the heads of several state agencies to settle allegations that they were shirking their duties under a 1993 federal voting law.
The National Voter Registration Act requires public-assistance agencies to offer voter-registration services to low-income residents.
Philadelphia-based Action United and the Black Political Empowerment Project, in Pittsburgh, sued the secretaries of state, public welfare and health last month in federal court, saying that officials were not making voter registration accessible to public-assistance clients.
The settlement comes amid ongoing litigation in state court over whether Pennsylvania's new voter-ID law is disenfranchising thousands of voters.
The federal lawsuit alleged that residents seeking public assistance were not being offered voter-registration applications and voter-preference forms, and that some local offices did not even have forms available on request.
The agreement, approved by U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe and U.S. Magistrate Carol Sandra Moore Wells, requires the departments of Public Welfare and Health to make voter materials available whenever clients apply for or renew benefits or change their address, in person or off-site.
The Public Welfare and Health departments must also retrain staff to reflect the new procedures, designate coordinators to ensure that voter-registration services are implemented, assign staff to visit local public-assistance offices and monitor compliance with the voter-registration act, and submit monthly reports to plaintiffs' lawyers.
The agreement provides for three years of oversight by the court to resolve any disputes.
State officials did not admit any violation of the voter-registration act and said that the agreement should not be seen as an acknowledgment that the new procedures weren't already in place or being implemented.
Based on the state's own submissions to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the number of voter-registration applications submitted at Pennsylvania's public-assistance offices fell from 59,462 in 1995-96 to just 4,179 in 2009-10 even though applicants for public assistance increased.