(CN) - Massachusetts denies welfare recipients an opportunity to register to vote, civil rights groups say in a federal complaint.
Though the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires all public assistance offices to ask their clients if they would like to register to vote, the NAACP-New England and New England United for Justice say something is holding Massachusetts back.
Census statistics show "voter registration gaps" that plague low-income populations, according to the groups.
In 2010, only 58.2 percent of Massachusetts' eligible citizens living in a household with a yearly income of less than $25,000 were registered to vote, as compared to 76.9 percent of eligible citizens living in a household with a yearly income of more than $100,000, the lawsuit states, relying on the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
There were approximately 10 percent more affluent voters in Massachusetts two years earlier, but just 58.1 percent of low-income voters were registered to vote in 2008.
"These 'voter registration gaps' reveal the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of eligible low income Massachusetts citizens," according to the complaint.
The figures do not correspond to Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) data, which suggests "that, in 2011, at least 94.2 percent of their clients were not provided the voter registration services ... because they purportedly identified themselves as registered voters."
"Given the Census Bureau's voter registration data, the statistical probability that over 94 percent of DTA clients are registered voters is essentially zero," according to the complaint. "DTA has recorded similarly incredible percentages of low income voter registrations every year since 2005."
"Massachusetts public assistance officers submitted 26,984 voter registration applications in 1999-2000," according to the complaint.
"Ten years later, in 2009-2010, again according to statistics reported to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission by Massachusetts, the number of voter registration applications submitted by Massachusetts public assistance offices had decreased to 2,007 - a reduction of 92.5 percent," the groups added.
Bethzaida Delgado, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, says the DTA never asked her about registering to vote when she visits the office about food stamps and Medicaid.
The groups say that the voting rights violations have disenfranchised eligible citizens such as Delgado.
"The right to vote is a fundamental right," according to the lawsuit in Boston. "Deprivations of that right undermine the American democratic system of government. Unfortunately, flawed practices and policies, insufficient oversight and inadequate enforcement in crucial parts of Massachusetts' voter registration system have deprived the right to vote to tens of thousands of low income Massachusetts citizens who receive public assistance."
Delgado and the groups seek an order declaring that the state has violated Section 7 of the NVRA, a preliminary injunction ordering NVRA compliance in time for the 2012 election and a court-approved plan directing them to ensure that everyone receiving public assistance is given the opportunity to register to vote.
Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Alec Loftus said his office is reviewing the complaint.
"Voting is one of the most important civic duties, and helping people comply is one of our top priorities," Loftus said in an email.
The lawsuit names Massachusetts Secretary William Galvin, HHS Secretary Judyann Bigby and DTA Commissioner Daniel Curley as defendants.
The plaintiffs are represented by John Felter of Ropes & Gray and Lisa Danetz of Demos, neither of whom could be reached for comment.