STATEMENT: Members of Congress Urge Justice Department To Enforce Decade-Old Voter Registration Law

Release Date: 
September 20, 2005

New York, NY/Washington, DC — Today, Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and John Lewis (D-GA), and 28 other leading members of Congress have called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to take immediate action to enforce Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Section 7 requires that public assistance agencies, such as family assistance, Medicaid and disability services offices, offer applicants and clients the opportunity to register to vote. Congress included Section 7 in NVRA, along with the better-known motor vehicle department registration provisions, in order to reverse a long trend of declining electoral turnout and under representation of the poor, disabled and others.

This month, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Demos and Project Vote released a new report, Ten Years Later: A Promise Unfulfilled, that found that, ten years after NVRA was adopted, most states had failed to adequately implement Section 7's agency-based voter registration requirements.

* Since 1995, voter registration applications from public assistance agencies nationwide have declined by 59.6%, while applications from all other sources have increased by 22%.
* 36 of 41 states reporting show a decline in registration applications from public assistance agencies since 1995.

Voter registration and turnout numbers among lower income Americans have remained stagnant from the 1996 to 2004 election cycles, showing that states' failure to implement Section 7 is perpetuating the two-tiered electorate that Congress intended to help eliminate with Section 7. While 85% of citizens in households with incomes of $75,000 or more are registered to vote, that figure drops to 59% in households with incomes less than $15,000.

In response to A Promise Unfulfilled, leading members of Congress are calling on the Justice Department to investigate and take action to ensure states are complying with the letter and spirit of the law.

States can not be permitted to ignore this law for more than a decade," says Rep. Conyers, the ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee and long-time voting rights leader. "Low income and disabled Americans--those with perhaps the most at stake in each election — have always been underrepresented in our democracy. Requiring voter registration in public assistance offices is one obvious step toward reversing this trend — and it's the law. It's time the Justice Department took action to enforce the National Voter Registration Act."

In reviewing data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) and conducting field observations, the authors of A Promise Unfulfilled conclude that nearly every state has failed to adequately incorporate voter registration into the services offered by public assistance agencies.

"We should strengthen our democracy by registering to vote the tens of millions of people who visit state agencies each month," said Maude Hurd of ACORN, which registered more than one million low-and moderate-income voters in the 2004 election cycle. "Agencies that provide public assistance to low income families take part in guaranteeing everyone has a voice at the ballot box--but they're not. It's time the Department of Justice and state elections officials stopped ignoring low-income people and started doing their jobs."

Ten Years Later reports that NVRA guidelines are often overlooked, and agency staff is inadequately trained and lack much-needed resources. Even in states that offer limited registration at social service offices, agencies are not equipped and staff lack direction to ensure that all clients are offered registration opportunities.

"Low-income citizens are only half as likely to be registered to vote as the average person. These NVRA numbers are a big clue why: states aren't prioritizing voter registration in low-income communities," said Maxine Nelson, President of Project Vote. "This hurts our democracy. The Justice Department must take immediate action to fix this widespread failure to register low-income voters."

Despite the failure of many states to provide adequate voter registration in public assistance offices, a few stand out for their performance under Section 7. Nevada, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arizona, Oregon and Washington have, with recent or ongoing efforts to implement agency-based registration, proven that voter registration applications increase when state election officials make Section 7 compliance a priority:

* Iowa's 2004 NVRA improvement efforts through the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program led to a 3000% increase in agency-based voter registrations over the same period in the previous year--and 700% over the same period in 2000.

Drawing on the best practices of Section 7-compliant states and new models derived from field observations, A Promise Unfulfilled offers clear implementation guidelines to assist states in offering voter registration in public assistance agencies. These include creating an "NVRA Improvement Team," training supervisors and caseworkers to offer voter registration to clients, and appointing a Voter Registration Coordinator in each office. Technical assistance from Demos and Project Vote is available upon request.

"Agencies should take note of the simple guidelines they can implement--to not only meet the letter of the law, but to truly serve their clients," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos and former Secretary of the State of Connecticut. "Voter registration at the DMV--another requirement of the National Voter Registration Act--has become a successful, central component of our electoral process, and voter registration at public assistance agencies must be given the same priority."

For more information about the National Voter Registration Act, visit Demos at archive.demos.org or Project Vote at www.projectvote.org.

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