Voter Registration Law Needs Everyone's Support
NEW YORK -- On May 20, 1993, President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) -- the aptly nicknamed "Motor Voter" Law -- as a landmark step forward in making our voting process more accessible to all citizens. Eleven years later, and just months before a national election, it is high time for officials charged with its implementation to help the law truly achieve its potential.
NVRA has indeed made major accessibility changes in how we now register and vote. Most of us are, by now, accustomed to using mail-in voter registration cards provided by the local election board or those received with our driver's license renewals. Hundreds of thousands of people have utilized NVRA's provisions that allow us to register to vote or simply correct our addresses when we move.
However, the third major area of NVRA has been a signal failure. One of the law's core mandates was to help enable low-income people to become voting participants in our democracy. More than a decade later, Americans at the bottom of the economic spectrum still have the lowest rates of voting registration. Only 48 percent of citizens in households earning $15,000 or less annually say they are registered, but for those earning more than $75,000 that number jumps to 78 percent. Clearly, economic standing still defines -- and limits -- the level of voice one has in our political process.
The magnitude of NVRA's failure on this matter was illuminated in a report released several weeks ago by Project Vote, a national nonpartisan voter registration organization. Using statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Election Commission, Project Vote analyzed the percentage of people simultaneously applying for food stamps and registering to vote.
The report showed that registration numbers are beyond abysmal, yielding a national average of 2 percent. In Maine the figure was better, but not good enough, at just 3 percent. But it clearly doesn't have to be this way.
In Nevada and South Dakota, the percentages were 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively -- more than eight times the national average. Clearly, the malfunction of the law in the other states is not an immutable reality, but rather a failure by social service agencies and state governments to fulfill requirements that have been in effect for 11 years.
There are, perhaps, a number of excuses - not one of them valid. Cutbacks in social service budgets by states have strained caseloads and office capacities - pushing implementation of NVRA to the "low-priority" file. Years after it became law, interest and momentum from the top have dwindled. Nonetheless, the provisions in NVRA are federal requirements and enabling and empowering citizens to vote should remain a priority for state leaders.
Thankfully, it is not too late. Registration deadlines in most states are still five months away. With a concerted effort by governors, secretaries of state, human service commissioners, agency staff and committed volunteers, these figures can be changed dramatically. The procedure is simple: people applying for benefits need to be asked, clearly and directly, if they wish to register to vote, and given the immediate opportunity to do so if they so choose.
In the 11 years since NVRA became law, new debates and reforms have overtaken the national electoral policy landscape. There is a great deal of attention focused this year on whether the new electronic voting machines will work properly and if all of the changes in our election processes -- mandated by the new Help America Vote Act (HAVA) -- will improve elections or just exacerbate Election Day tribulations. We are also finally witnessing a national discussion about long-standing participatory barriers like the disenfranchisement of almost five million citizens with felony convictions, and an open debate on reforms like Election Day voter registration and mail-in balloting.
Amid the new debates it is critical to rededicate ourselves to a belief in a participatory democracy, and start with enforcing NVRA. This one item can increase participation and dramatically boost voting numbers overnight. If we can mobilize the people charged with bringing this law to fruition, that night could very well be next November 2nd, reversing a decades-old trend toward dismal voter turnout.
As another anniversary of NVRA passes, we must ensure that everyone promised registration access through the National Voter Registration Act is given the opportunity in fact as well as in law.
Miles Rapoport is the president of Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action, and former secretary of the state of Connecticut. Maxine Nelson is the president of Project Vote, a national nonpartisan voter registration and education organization.
One of the law's core mandates was to help enable low-income people to become voting participants in our democracy. More than a decade later, Americans at the bottom of the economic spectrum still have the lowest rates of voting registration.