SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A San Francisco Superior Court judge has told California to expand its voter registration outreach in an order that newly designates some state and county offices as voter registration agencies.
Judge Ethan Schulman ruled all county offices that administer general assistance or general relief programs will now be required to provide voter registration services. The ruling also mandates county offices that administer student financial aid, as well as private contractors providing assistance on behalf of voter registration agencies, must provide voter registration services.
The new interpretation of California's obligations under the National Voter Registration Act was handed down by Judge Schulman on Friday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued California Secretary of State Alex Padilla last summer. It argued that the National Voter Registration Act requires Padilla, in his role as the state's top elections official, to designate all state offices that administer programs that primarily serve people with disabilities as voter registration agencies.
The ACLU said the language of the National Voting Rights Act, often called the Motor Voter Act, means that other state agencies must provide the same voter services as the department of motor vehicles. Currently, motor vehicle departments nationwide distribute voter registration applications, provide assistance to applicants in completing the forms and transmit completed applications to state election officials.
According to the ACLU, there are nearly 5.3 million eligible but unregistered Californians and the newly designated voter registration agencies interact with 1.8 million people a year, many of whom are not registered to vote.
"The importance of this ruling is that going forward, millions of Californians will gain the opportunity to vote," said Raul Macias, an attorney and voting rights project manager for the ACLU's California Voting Rights Project. He said he hopes this will allow the state to "reach voters who have historically been excluded from our democracy."
The deputy attorney general representing California in the case did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.
In his ruling, Schulman gave the state 30 days to issue a new declaration that brings the additional offices into the fold of the NVRA. The ruling focused on the distinction under the act between the state and county offices that must provide voter registration services and those that may provide services at their discretion.
As a result, he found that several programs and offices were not required under the act to function as voting registration agencies. School nutrition programs were left out because, while the state provides funding, the local school districts provide the services.
For the same reason that the decision whether to designate public schools as voter registration agencies is within the state's discretion, he did not require the designation for state offices providing services to people with disabilities, such as special education offices.
The ACLU sought the designation for California Area Agencies on Aging, which provide planning and funding for programs such as Meals on Wheels, but Judge Schulman declined, finding that the agencies themselves have no direct contact with the public.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.