STATEMENT: Low Income Americans Failed By States That Ignore federal Voter Registration Law

Release Date: 
October 31, 2006

New York, NY — Across the nation, states are failing to meet a Federal mandate to boost voter registration among low-income Americans by offering registration opportunities in public assistance offices — a requirement established by Congress under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy center, published the findings in a new briefing paper this week.

Congress passed the NVRA with the purpose of establishing "procedures that will increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal office." The NVRA is often called the "Motor Voter" law because of its well-known provision requiring state motor vehicle departments to offer customers the opportunity to register to vote. Recognizing that low-income citizens are among the least likely to own cars and therefore not as likely to frequent motor vehicle offices, Congress deliberately included a provision requiring public assistance agencies to offer voter registration services to applicants and clients.

The National Voter Registration Act briefing paper, part of Demos' Challenges to Fair Elections series, shows that there is widespread failure in implementing the public assistance provisions of the NVRA, and that states are not adequately addressing the representation gap in American democracy the law was meant to reverse — one that has closely mirrored the income gap that has steadily increased over the last 40 years. According to the 2004 U.S. Census, nine years after the NVRA was required to be implemented by the states, 59 percent of citizens in households making less than $15,000 a year were registered to vote versus 85 percent of those in households making $75,000 or more. Data collected by state and federal agencies, in combination with public assistance office site visits and surveys conducted outside public assistance offices, have found that a large number of states are poorly enforcing, and some actively disregarding, their responsibility to offer voter registration in these agencies.

"A vibrant democracy is one in which all individuals, regardless of income, are able to have a voice in the democratic process," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos and former Secretary of the State of Connecticut. "In 1993, it was the intent of Congress to address the declining representation of low-income Americans in the electorate — those citizens with perhaps the most at stake on Election Day. While some states have shown improvement in compliance with the law, many are failing miserably, and doing a great disservice to the idea of full participation in the democratic process."

Facts--the importance of effective voter registration procedures:

* Because voter registration is a pre-condition to voting in all but one state, registration is a major determinant in whether or not someone turns out to vote in an election. In recent presidential elections, more than 80 percent of those registered went to the polls. It is therefore imperative to get eligible voters registered.

* Public assistance agencies are the government offices most likely to be frequented by low- income Americans and are therefore the ideal locations to register low-income citizens to vote. According to the U.S. Census, there are 16.7 million households making less than $15,000 a year. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture indicates that there were over 42 million applications and re-certifications for Food Stamp benefits in 2003-2004. That only 59 percent of low-income citizens are registered to vote is a strong indicator that states are not registering their low-income citizens.

* Despite the law's good intent, most states have failed to adequately implement the public assistance requirements of the NVRA. As a result, the number of voter registration applications from public assistance agencies has fallen by almost 60 percent between 1995–1996 and 2003–2004, while applications from all other sources — like the state departments of motor vehicles — increased by 22 percent.

In the states:

* There is implementation progress in Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. After adopting a series of simple changes, Iowa was able to increase the number of voter registration applications coming from their public assistance agencies by 3000 percent. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have also taken significant steps to register low-income public assistance recipients. After the documentation of widespread problems in North Carolina, the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections quickly proposed and is now in the process of implementing a 10-point plan to improve NVRA compliance.

* Survey data, along with data from federal and state agencies, indicate significant problems and clear noncompliance in several states. Among them are Ohio, Arkansas, Maryland and Missouri. A lawsuit is currently pending against officials in Ohio for that state's failure to provide voter registration services to low-income people in compliance with the NVRA. Ohio's own data indicate that public assistance agencies in ten counties failed to register a single voter between 2002 and 2004 and agencies in another 17 counties registered ten or fewer voters during the same two-year period. Moreover, data collected by federal agencies indicates that Arkansas, Maryland and Missouri all experienced over an 80 percent decline in the number of voters registered in their public assistance agencies over the past 10 years.

There are several immediate steps states can take to ensure that the number of low-income citizens registering to vote can be significantly increased:

1. Ensure that the opportunity to register to vote is offered to all individuals applying for, recertifying, or changing addresses with respect to public assistance benefits.
2. Distribute with each application, recertification, and change of address form a "declination statement" with the question, "If you are not registered to vote where you live now, would you like to register to vote here today?"
3. Offer voter registration in office waiting rooms.
4. Regularly train public assistance office caseworkers on voter registration procedures.
5. Use posters, videos, and buttons to promote voter registration services throughout public assistance offices.

"A truly representative democracy can only be achieved by ensuring that all citizens, across the spectrum of race, class, geography and income, can register to vote and cast a ballot that will count," said Rapoport. "Full implementation of the NVRA is a proven and effective way to ensure that low-income citizens are provided with this opportunity, and states must take all available steps to make sure that the provisions of the law are implemented for the future."

To find out more about the National Voter Registration Act or other election-related issues, visit archive.demos.org to download the 2006 Challenges to Fair Elections briefing paper series or Demos' Election Reform Agenda from the 2006-2007 policy briefing book, Fulfilling America's Promise.

[Previously published briefing papers in this series have examined issues that include: voter ID/ proof of citizenship requirements/fraud allegations; provisional ballots; ballot access for disabled and language-minority voters; felony disfranchisement laws; and poll worker training. Upcoming publications will examine: voter intimidation and suppression; name matching and voter registration databases; campaign finance; and Election Day registration.]

###