STATEMENT: New Study Debunks Flawed Heritage Foundation Report on Low Income Voter Registrations

Release Date: 
October 6, 2009

Claims That Lower Public Agency Registration Caused by Welfare Reform Rather Than Poor Implementation Undermined

New York — A  new study published today by Demos debunks a recent Heritage Foundation report claiming that welfare reform is a significant factor in the decline in voter registrations coming from public assistance agencies. The Heritage Foundation report has been used to oppose efforts to promote full enforcement of the Public Agency Voter Registration provision (section 7) of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

Read the Report Declining Public Assistance Voter Registration and Welfare Reform: A Response

The Demos study, authored by political scientists R. Michael Alvarez of Caltech and Jonathan Nagler of New York University, concludes that the research by the Heritage Center for Data Analysis was flawed in its technical design, and thus provides no basis for the arguments against vigorous federal and state enforcement of this important law.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), commonly referred to as the "motor voter law", requires offices that provide public assistance benefits such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, TANF (cash assistance), and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program) to provide voter registration services to clients. The number of voter registration applications from public assistance agencies has declined from over 2.6 million in 1995-1996 to only 550,000 in 2005-2006. Data analysis and field investigations by Demos and its partners have shown that states across the country are failing to properly comply with the law's requirements.

In a 2008 Heritage Foundation report and testimony provided to Congress, researchers David Muhlhausen and Patrick Tyrrell use statistical analysis to conclude that fewer individuals are registering to vote in public assistance agencies in recent years because of declines in TANF caseloads. TANF (formerly AFDC) is only one of the programs administered by such agencies. Specifically, Muhlhausen and Tyrrell found that "a one percent decrease in AFDC/TANF participation is associated with a 0.49 percent decline in voter registrations."

However, the new paper by Alvarez and Nagler found that Muhlhausen and Tyrrell manipulate the data in questionable ways that overstates the precision of their estimates and allows them to claim their results have reached traditional levels of statistical significance when in fact they largely do not. They also noted that Muhlhausen and Tyrrell's model does not test competing hypotheses to explain the drop in Public Assistance registrations, including the claim that states are failing to properly implement the act.

"Muhlhausen and Tyrrell reach conclusions that are not supported by their data analysis. We cannot say based on their report that the decline in public assistance registrations can be explained by declining AFDC/TANF caseloads. Nor can we draw any inference about enforcement, or lack thereof, of NVRA provisions by the states," says report co-author Jonathan Nagler.

"Alvarez and Nagler's report casts doubt on one of the most widespread myths used to justify the massive declines in voter registrations from public assistance agencies: that they are the result of declines in TANF caseloads rather than states' noncompliance," said Scott Novakowski, senior policy analyst at Demos. "It's not surprising that the Heritage Foundation's findings are questionable given the violations Demos and others have observed in states across the country and the massive increases in registrations in states that have improved their compliance with the law."

Demos has been engaged in an initiative since 2004 to improve state compliance with the public assistance voter registration provisions of the NVRA. The organizations have worked cooperatively with officials in states such as North Carolina and Virginia to improve compliance and have filed litigation to force compliance in several states including Ohio and Missouri. In July 2008, the groups won a preliminary injunction requiring Missouri's Department of Social Services to comply with the law. Since then, the average number of registrations coming from DSS offices has increased from an average of 650 registrations per month to almost 12,000, an almost 1,800 percent increase.

Read the Report Declining Public Assistance Voter Registration and Welfare Reform: A Response

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