May 17 / PV Admin

National Voter Registration Act Turns 20, Faces Challenges Today

Washington, DC – Monday, May 20 marks the 20th Anniversary of the signing of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Though less familiar to most Americans than the Voting Rights Act, the NVRA changed the way voter registration is handled in the U.S. It stands today as one of the most vital federal laws protecting the right to vote in America.

The NVRA is commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law because it requires every driver’s license application to include voter registration. The NVRA also mandated that voter registration be offered at public assistance agencies, created national standards for voter registration, and introduced safeguards against the wrongful purging of registrations.

Since the implementation of the NVRA, an estimated 141 million Americans have applied to get on the voter rolls through registration services the NVRA requires at DMVs, disability offices, and public agencies. In addition, countless more have been protected from purging due to the protections the NVRA provides.

“To the extent that Americans now think voter registration is easy, it’s largely because of the NVRA,” says Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote. “It streamlined what had been a confusing and often obstructive system of state laws, and expanded voter registration opportunities to make our democracy more accessible to all eligible Americans.”

The major provisions of the NVRA require:

  • That registration services be offered at driver’s license departments, public assistance and disability agencies; 
  • The creation of a simple federal voter registration form that state election official must accept as method of registration; 
  • The additional mandate that states allow for mail-in registration; and
  • Safeguards on the procedures to protect voters already on the rolls from being purged. 

While the NVRA has made the system more accessible for many, the law still faces unequal implementation. Following the highly successful first two years of implementation in 1995-6, in which over 2.6 million applications were received nationwide through public assistance agencies, many states began ignoring their responsibility to offer these services. This lack of compliance resulted in millions of low-income Americans being denied the opportunity to register to vote.

Now, 20 years after the signing, decades of inconsistent enforcement means that many states are still failing to offer voter registration through public agencies.

“Most states do a passing job at offering voter registration at their Department of Motor Vehicles offices, but many fail to do so at their public assistance agencies,” explains Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program at Project Vote. “The NVRA mandated that voter registration be offered at government offices that offer public assistance precisely because they connect with Americans who were less likely to register through other means, such as low-income people and persons with disabilities.”

In the past decade, Project Vote, its partners Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and other organizations, have assumed the burden of enforcing the NVRA through litigation and advocacy. The groups have intervened in 14 states across the country to ensure compliance at pubic agencies. The effort has resulted in an estimated 1.8 million more Americans applying to be registered.

For example, registrations through Ohio public agencies had fallen from over 100,000 in 1995-6, to just over 21,000 per year in 2005-6. That changed dramatically following a November 2009 settlement of a lawsuit brought by the coalition to bring the state into compliance. From January 2010 through December 2012, Ohio public agencies collected more than 552,000 applications. Other states, including Missouri and Indiana, have seen similarly dramatic increases in registrations following litigation in those states.

“Public agency registration works,” says Brannon. “When properly implemented, it remains one of our most effective ways of reaching those Americans who have historically been underrepresented at the voting booth.”

In addition to uneven implementation, the NVRA today faces challenges from some states that are adding new requirements for applying to register to vote. Arizona, for example, is requiring documentary proof of citizenship. Project Vote is one of several plaintiffs challenging that new requirement in Inter Tribal Counsel of Arizona v. Arizona.

“The NVRA was created precisely to end these sorts of unnecessary hurdles to registration,” says Slater. “There is little evidence to suggest that non-citizen voting is a widespread problem, but this fear is being used to undermine the intent and effect of the NVRA.

“The history of voting rights in America is one of hard-fought expansion of the franchise,” says Slater. “As we celebrate the anniversary of the NVRA, we must not go backwards, but must continue moving forward to ensure that voting is free, fair, and accessible to all Americans.”

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For more information, contact Project Vote’s media director, Sarah Massey at smassey[at]projectvote.org.

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