UPDATE: Briefing on Enforcing Federal Election Law, Combatting Barriers to the Ballot
Today, Project Vote, Demos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law went to Capitol Hill to hold two panel discussions on “The Importance of National Voter Registration Act Enforcement Amidst a Down Economy and Aggressive State Voter Purges.” Moderated by Adam Lioz of Demos, these well-attended panels highlighted the importance that voting plays in American society and underscored the need for states to comply with the NVRA, especially ahead of the election this November.
Mr. Lioz began by noting that the primary reason people do not vote is that they are not registered. For example, in 2008, there was a 64 percent overall voter turnout rate, but registered voters turned out at a rate of 90 percent. In a down economy, enforcement of the NVRA is particularly important because (1) there are greater numbers of people on public assistance, and (2) as a country, we cannot solve our economic problems if the voices of those who are struggling most are systematically excluded from the conversation. Mr. Lioz also thanked other organizations that are actively involved with NVRA work, including the League of Women Voters, Brennan Center, ACLU, Advancement Project, and NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
Bob Kengle from the Lawyers’ Committee spoke about Section 8 of the NVRA, which was designed to guard against inconsistent and discriminatory purges. Mr. Kengle addressed the frequency at which states engage in misguided purges of state voter registration lists and noted that much remains to be done to ensure that states fully comply with Section 8 and engage in list purging processes that are open and predictable. He also noted that although some states’ voter registration lists include some “deadwood,” or individuals who are no longer eligible to vote, “deadwood” does not necessarily indicate voter fraud. He closed by addressing Florida’s problematic attempt to purge its voter rolls of non-citizens, as well as Judge Hinkle’s recent decision not to enjoin Florida based upon the state’s representation that it had stopped its purging program.
Estelle Rogers of Project Vote spoke about Section 7 of the NVRA, which requires public assistance agencies—such as those providing food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, and WIC—to provide a voter registration opportunity with each application, recertification, renewal, or change-of-address. Ms. Rogers stressed that Section 7 was designed to complement Section 5 (which requires voter registration to be provided by departments of motor vehicles) by reaching low-income citizens who are less likely to have a driver’s license. However, despite the fact that more people are applying for public assistance benefits, the number of voter registration applications submitted at public assistance agencies in many states is dropping. For example, in Florida, there has been a 158 percent increase in the number of initial SNAP applications since 2007. In the same time period, the number of applications collected at public assistance agencies has decreased by 61 percent.
Lisa Danetz of Demos next addressed the groups’ joint litigation efforts to enforce compliance with Section 7 of the NVRA. Between 1995 (when the NVRA was first enacted) and 2006, the number of voter registration applications collected by public assistance agencies declined by 80 percent overall across the country. Since 2006—when the three organizations first began litigating to enforce compliance with Section 7—voter registration at public assistance agencies has increased by 114 percent. To date, lawsuits have been brought in nine states, and pre-litigation notice letters have been sent to another eleven.
Ms. Danetz next singled out several states as strong evidence of the success that the groups have had thus far. Ohio public assistance agencies are now averaging more than 16,000 voter registration applications per month, compared to a pre-litigation average of approximately 1,775 per month. New Mexico’s monthly average has increased 3,241%, and Indiana’s monthly average has increased approximately 3,000%. As a final word of encouragement, Ms. Danetz explained to the audience that since 2006, as a result of Section 7 compliance litigation, 1.6 million more Americans have registered to vote at public assistance agencies than would be expected based on prior voter registration trends.
In the afternoon session, audience members were also honored to hear from Representative John Conyers and Hillary Shelton of the NAACP (the State Conferences of which frequently serve as plaintiffs in Section 7 enforcement litigation). Both men stressed the importance of ensuring compliance with the NVRA while voting rights are under attack across the country through the passage of photo ID laws, cuts to early voting, restrictions on voter registration drives, and increased restrictions on the franchise for persons convicted of felony offenses.
Overall, the audience appeared to be very receptive to the information that the speakers provided. It is hoped that this panel not only educated congressional staff as to what it means to be compliant with the NVRA, but also that it will encourage members of Congress to work to ensure that their states are compliant.