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In Comprehensive Report, Independent Federal Agency Makes Strong Voter Registration Act Recommendations

Lisa J. Danetz

Just in time for the end of the presidential election voter registration period, the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) has issued this important report, “Increasing Compliance With Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act,” on voter registration access. This report comes amid increasing attention to voting rights around the country, evident in recent court decisions as well as efforts to keep turnout low by suppressing voter participation. Against this backdrop, the Commission issues a call for important policies to expand voting access.

Disclosure: I testified before the USCCR at its briefing on this issue and, excitingly, the Commission’s recommendations dovetail at quite a high level with Demos’ own policy priorities.

The report flows from the premise that “the country works best and benefits most when all eligible citizens have a fair opportunity to register to vote,” because voter registration is the first step to casting a ballot. Important to bear in mind, voter registration systems—where citizens are required to navigate bureaucratic and procedural hurdles in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote—were first implemented in the late nineteenth century as a racist voter suppression tactic, in response to the 15th Amendment’s endowment of formerly enslaved Americans with the right to vote. Indeed, our current system of voter registration creates barriers to voting that serve no significant purpose for democracy while excluding tens of millions of potential voters from the political process. (This history is exactly what motivates Demos’ work to eliminate barriers to voting.) The report reviews the history of the struggle to ensure the right to vote for all including historically disenfranchised groups, and the evolution toward a more inclusive democracy.

On the path to its recommendations, USCCR makes important findings about the need for effective voter registration programs by public assistance and disability agencies as well as the successful impact of enforcement of federal voter registration laws. Such work has been at the heart of Demos’ Freedom to Vote work for many years.

Specifically, the Commission frames the importance of its findings in terms of the inclusivity of public agency voter registration:

  • Agency registration benefits all demographics. While the majority of people receiving public assistance are white, people of color are 3-4 times more likely to register through a public assistance agency. 
  • The voter registration opportunities provided through public assistance offices are “vital” for citizens with disabilities, even though voter registration must be offered by state-funded disability offices, because individuals with disabilities “struggle with poverty at twice the rate of citizens without disabilities.”
  • Limited English-proficient citizens, who are more likely to be living in poverty than English-proficient individuals, also benefit from the voter registration opportunities provided through public assistance offices.

The effectiveness of agency registration is exactly why it is so important for individuals to have easy access to voter registration through the government agencies where they already interact.

When states fail to provide required voter registration services, the USCCR recognizes that litigation is an effective tool, explaining that “cooperative work and/or lawsuits by the Department of Justice or private litigants resulted in 7 of the 10 top-performing states under Section 7.” (Demos and its partners were part of the interventions in 5 of those seven states!)

Happily, many of Demos’ policy recommendations were included within the USCCR recommendations for providing broader voter registration access.

  1. Updating voter registration through technology is effective and makes sense. Voter registration is easier when state agencies can electronically transfer information to elections officials and/or through online voter registration.  The report recommends that the federal government –through the EAC and Congress—should encourage states to invest in technology that allows for easier voter registration.
  2. Automatic voter registration, and the automatic address update of voter registration upon any other change of address within the state, is efficient and cost-effective, and should be enacted.
  3. Significantly, the USCCR identifies the ACA’s Health Benefits Exchanges as agencies that must offer voter registration services and recognizes the federal government’s obligations in this regard – obligations that it has not undertaken. Demos and its partners have been calling for this for the last 3.5 years. The failure to provide these services through the federal Health Benefit Exchanges has resulted in the loss of as many as 1.7 million voter registrations during the first two ACA enrollment periods
  4. The Department of Justice needs to increase it NVRA enforcement. This issue goes back many years.
  5. Congress should require federal agencies to be mandatory voter registration agencies, a policy Demos first promoted in 2008 and in the early days of the Obama Administration. At a minimum, Indian Health Services, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs should all be designated voter registration agencies.

We applaud the USCCR for its careful, comprehensive, diligent analysis of these issues. We hope that the federal and state governments take the recommended actions to allow broader access to voter registration to eligible citizens.