Secretary of State Tom Schedler has the authority to enforce federal voting rights compliance by state agencies outside his office, according to a new U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
The ruling came in a 2011 lawsuit filed by the Louisiana NAACP and others alleging that the state violated federal law by failing to properly provide voter registration services to public assistance clients.
Schedler had argued that the agencies were in the executive branch and not under his control, as he defended his office against the claim.
Under the National Voter Registration Act, called NVRA, people are supposed to be offered the opportunity to register to vote when seeking benefits through such agencies as the state departments of Health and Hospitals, and Children and Family Services.
The federal lawsuit, Luther Scott, et al v. Schedler, claimed that the Louisiana social service agencies were not complying with the law with “sufficient vigor.”
In a decision released late Wednesday, a four-judge panel of the 5th Circuit agreed with a lower court decision that as the state’s chief elections officer Schedler was required to supervise and enforce voter registration activities of the state agencies.
Schedler could not be reached for comment. His press secretary, Meg Casper, said a decision had not been made whether to appeal.
In another part of the ruling, the panel agreed with Schedler that the so-called “motor voter” law required voter registration forms to be provided only to people who showed up in person seeking services such as Medicaid or food stamps.
The Louisiana National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others had argued that the law also provided for remote voter registration when people sought benefits via phone or online.
U.S. District Court Judge Jane Triche-Milazzo, of New Orleans, had earlier ruled remote assistance was also required under federal law. Schedler appealed.
Natasha Korgaonkar, assistant counsel for NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the court “did not fully recognize the scope of Louisiana’s violation of the National Voter Registration Act.” Particularly problematic is the rejection of the remote voter registration requirement, Korgaonkar said. “Remote transactions constitute the majority of benefits transactions in Louisiana,” she said.
In a statement, Schedler said: “I am satisfied that the 5th Circuit judges revealed, once again, that Louisiana is in substantial compliance with the NVRA.”
Schedler said some 84 percent of those eligible to vote are registered. “To ignore that statistic and sue the state anyway was irresponsible and unacceptable,” he said.