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Jul 30 / Michael Slater

The Proof is in the Numbers: Surge in Low-Income VR Applications follows Successful NVRA Lawsuits

Hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans—mostly women—are registering to vote at public assistance agencies in a handful of states as a result of litigation by voting rights groups to enforce a vital but long-neglected federal law. The results suggest that millions of low-income Americans—a population mostly ignored by candidates from both major political parties—could be added to official rolls nationwide if states fully complied with the law.

The National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”) of 1993 requires states to offer registration services through motor vehicle agencies and offices providing public assistance and disability services. It is the only federal law that requires states to offer citizens an opportunity to register to vote. But while the “motor voter” aspect of the law has been widely implemented, public assistance agencies in many states have long neglected their voter registration responsibilities. The result is a decade of missed opportunities to reach the very populations most often underrepresented at the voting booth.

Now, advocacy and litigation by voting rights groups—and renewed support from the Department of Justice—has prompted states to newly implement the NVRA, which should result in greater turnout in 2010 and beyond. The most dramatic results can be seen in Missouri and Ohio, but similar results can be found in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Colorado:

  • Missouri: Prior to a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups—including Project Vote, Demos, and The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—Missouri public assistance agencies averaged fewer than 8,000 voter registration applications per year. In July 2008 a court order compelled the state to comply with the law, and from August 2008 through June 2010, over 246,000 voter registration applications were submitted at public assistance agencies, or about 10,000 a month.
  • Ohio: A similar lawsuit brought against Ohio for non-compliance was settled in November 2009. From January 2010 through June 2010, more than 101,000 voter registration applications were submitted at public assistance agencies, or about 15,000 a month.
  • North Carolina: During the 2007-2008 federal cycle, more than 78,000 registration applications were submitted at state public assistance agencies, following an agreement with voting rights groups.
  • Colorado: During the 2007-2008 federal cycle, more than 31,000 applications were submitted at state public assistance agencies, a six-fold increase from 2007, after the secretary of state made NVRA compliance a priority.
  • Tennessee: During the 2007-2008 federal cycle, more than 158,000 voter registration applications were submitted at public assistance agencies, following the settlement of a suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002.

In addition to the success in these states, another encouraging sign is that the Justice Department—which is charged with enforcing the 1993 law—has now seemingly made NVRA compliance a priority. In June, the Department issued its first-ever guidelines on compliance, unambiguously stating that NVRA agencies must offer voter registration services with the “same level of assistance” as any benefit or license application, and suggesting it may eventually sue additional states if they do not comply. In July, Department lawyers made presentations on the guidelines and enforcement priorities at conventions for the state officials who implement the law (including secretaries of state, state election elections, motor vehicle department administrators).

The importance of this long-neglected law can hardly be overstated. During the 2008 presidential campaign, some partisans criticized community-based registration drives that served low-income Americans.  At the same time, however, voter registration was generally acknowledged to be the biggest problem in the 2008 election. As Project Vote’s report Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate shows, some 60 million eligible Americans were unregistered in 2008, and 11 million of them were from households making less than $25,000.

Nationwide enforcement of the public agency requirements of the NVRA could be the key to reaching this group of Americans, an important—but often overlooked—constituency. The potential of this program is tremendous: SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp program) is only one of the programs covered by the NVRA, but it alone had more than 40 million beneficiaries in April 2010. States in compliance with the NVRA’s agency requirements show 10 percent to 20 percent of public assistance applicants will register to vote if given the opportunity, so full compliance could result in several million more voter applications annually.

Registration problems would be fewer, participation rates greater, and community-based voter registration drives far less necessary if state agencies were in compliance with the NVRA. Our hope is that other states that have been ignoring the NVRA will not wait to be sued to fulfill their obligations to these millions of unregistered Americans.

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