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Protecting Voters in Rensselaer County

Groups File Suit to Block Rensselaer County’s Plan to Intimidate Voters By Illegally Disclosing Voter Registration Information to ICE

New York, NY – On July 26, Protect Democracy and Demos filed a lawsuit on behalf of civil and voting rights organizations New York Immigration Coalition, Community Voices Heard, Common Cause/New York, and Citizen Action of New York, alongside Rensselaer County resident Jenifer Benn.  The lawsuit seeks to block the Board of Elections of Rensselaer County, New York from illegally disclosing residents’ protected personal information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they register to vote. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.

On July 18, Rensselaer County announced that, effective immediately, it would transmit to ICE the personal information of all residents who register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Under this plan, County residents with U.S. citizenship may be subject to an ICE investigation as the price of registering to vote at the DMV — the most popular form of voter registration in the state.

The County’s plans will intimidate and deter eligible citizens from registering to vote when they apply for a driver’s license, renew their license, or update their address information at the DMV, abridging their fundamental right to vote and resulting in serious underrepresentation in the electoral process. Plaintiff Benn, for example, is a U.S. citizen and an eligible voter in Rensselaer County who does not want to register to vote at the DMV because she fears that doing so would be harmful to herself, her family, and the community.

The County’s conduct violates the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voter intimidation, and the 1st and 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the fundamental right to vote.

The plaintiff groups are organizations that conduct voter registration and are committed to building an inclusive democracy. They are represented by Protect Democracy and Demos, a racial justice organization that works toward solutions to political and economic inequity.

“The County’s new policy is sending a shockwave rolling through our communities, deterring eligible citizens from registering to vote at the DMV,” said Afua Atta-Mensah, Executive Director of Community Voices Heard. “Community Voices Heard has joined this lawsuit to stand fast against this unlawful intimidation, and to protect the right to vote for those in our communities who have worked so hard for their citizenship.”

Rensselaer County is pulling a page from the Trump playbook by intimidating new citizens from exercising their right to vote and undermining our democracy simply for political gain. This is yet one more of a long series of assaults against immigrants and communities of color designed to keep them from being full participants in our democracy. We fought the addition of the citizenship question in Census 2020 and won that lawsuit. We will fight this unAmerican and undemocratic action in the streets and in the courts, and have every intention of winning,” said Anu Joshi, Senior Director of Immigrant Rights Policy at the New York Immigration Coalition.

“Rensselaer County is making voter registration a risky proposition for its own citizens,” said Chiraag Bains, Director of Legal Strategies at Demos. “Telling people that if they want to register to vote they’ll be subject to scrutiny from ICE is a form of outright voter suppression. It’s rooted in a broader assault on immigrants and communities of color, but it hurts all voters. We’re proud to bring this lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs fighting for an equitable, multiracial democracy in which all voters can exercise their rights without intimidation.”

Cameron Kistler, Counsel for Protect Democracy, said, “The County’s plan to share voter registration information with federal immigration authorities is a flagrant violation of federal law. It is also a transparent attempt to scare lawful voters–particularly those in the Latinx community–from registering to vote. Such lawless conduct has no place in our democracy, which depends on free and fair elections in which all citizens may participate without fear.”

“Let’s get the facts straight: non-citizens can not register to vote at the DMV or anywhere else in New York state. The County Executive’s threat to turn over the voting rolls to ICE is designed to fearmonger against immigrants and needlessly alarm and confuse eligible potential voters,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director it Common Cause/NY.

“Rensselaer County Republicans are pulling straight from the Donald Trump playbook, using scare tactics that go against the Board of Elections’ stated mission to ensure that‘all qualified voters have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.’It’s voter suppression, plain and simple, and needs to be stopped immediately. The DMV and Board of Elections already have procedures in place to help verify voters’ qualifications. It’s clear that County Republicans’ real goal is to discourage undocumented people from accessing drivers’ licenses and will do anything–including discourage people from exercising their right to to vote–to push their anti-immigrant agenda,” said Cessie Alfonso, Capital Region Board Member of Citizen Action of New York.

Protect Democracy and Demos also sent a notice letter today on behalf of the plaintiff organizations, as well as the League of Women Voters of the United States and the League of Women Voters of New York State, warning the Rensselaer County Board of Elections that disclosure of DMV voter registration information to ICE blatantly violates the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). 

If the County does not withdraw its plan to send voter registration information to ICE within 90 days from today, the organizations intend to pursue additional litigation under the NVRA.

More information on the case can be found here.

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Media Contacts: Shanae Bass, Demos, sbass@demos.org; Aditi Juneja, Protect Democracy, Aditi.Juneja@protectdemocracy.org