Jun 24 / Steven Rosenfeld

Justice Department Stands Behind Voter Registration Law

Modernizing voter registration services has been a big theme in policy and government circles since the 2008 presidential election.  But a new effort by the Department of Justice to better implement a 20th century voting rights law, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA)—known as the motor voter bill—could make equally big waves, potentially adding millions of voters to official lists.

Earlier this month, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice issued new guidelines for implementing the landmark law. “The Voter Registration Requirements of Sections 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), Questions and Answers,” describe what states are required to do to offer required voter registration services, and also encourage best practices to streamline registration procedures at state agencies.

“Each State motor vehicle driver’s license application (including any renewal application) submitted to a State motor vehicle authority must serve as a simultaneous voter registration application unless the applicant fails to sign the voter registration application,” the guidelines state on their first of 18 pages of fine print.

This assertion—that getting a driver’s license and registering to vote are to be fully integrated as one process—is stunningly simple.  But it also is not standard operating procedure in a majority of states.  Other guidelines, such as telling election offices that they cannot delete a voter registration if a person has not recently voted unless a notice process unfolding over two election cycles is precisely followed (with a few exceptions), is also crystal clear.  But here, too, some states have not been waiting that long.

Moving deeper into the guidelines, the Justice Department says state public assistance agencies—offering anti-poverty programs and assistance to people with disabilities—must also offer voter registration services with the same degree of attentiveness as any other benefit program.  For years, Project Vote and other advocates have been working to address the widespread lack of compliance in many states that has been tantamount to virtual abandonment of the NVRA’s public agency requirements.

How bad has compliance been with this section of the law? When first implemented in 1995-1996, 2.6 million people registered to vote at state public assistance agencies.  In 2007-2008, 962,000 people registered at these agencies and 128,000 people at disability agencies, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Ironically, the 2007-2008 public assistance numbers were an increase from previous federal cycles, in part because voting rights groups and yes, the Justice Department, sued states and won—forcing states to offer voter registration services to clients at these agencies.

Project Vote estimates nationwide compliance with just the public assistance agency requirements of the law could add two-to-three million more voters to official rolls a year, based on the Food Stamp program alone. (In 2005-2006, 21.2 million people sought this benefit nationwide.)  States that settled litigation over this section of the law—Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio—have shown between 10 percent and 20 percent of public assistance clients will submit voter applications if asked by state employees.

The Justice Department’s issuance of guidelines will not make NVRA compliance happen overnight.  Nothing ever happens that fast in elections.  But it appears the Civil Rights Division is on the verge of overseeing better implementation of a major voting rights law.  Indeed, the civil rights movement legal foundations—starting with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and continuing with the NVRA of 1993—were intended to enfranchise millions.

The Justice Department will be briefing state election directors at an upcoming national conference in mid-July.  Election officials know this is a new day and a big deal.  They do not know how forceful subsequent enforcement actions may be if states ignore the new Justice Department guidelines.  But state election officials do not have a recent history of ignoring the Department on voting rights.

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