Washington DC/NY, NY — Today Demos and Project Vote, two leading, national nonprofit organizations dedicated to voter registration, criticized the Department of Justice for failing to remind states of their responsibilities under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to offer voter registration services in public assistance agencies.
Our request to the DOJ was simple: Please remind states of their responsibilities under the law, said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos. Most states are ignoring the voting rights of low-income citizens. Given the data showing widespread failure in this area and DOJ's responsibility to enforce the law we are deeply disappointed by the department's failure to take this step.
The NVRA, signed into law in 1993, created several mechanisms to make it easier for citizens to register to vote, including registration at departments of motor vehicles (DMV) and public assistance offices. The law's DMV requirements are well known, and cover all applicants for driver's licenses or motor vehicle registrations. Less well known is Section 7, which requires that states offer every person who applies for public assistance or reapplies, or changes address-- the opportunity to register to vote. If a low-income applicant chooses to register, the agency must offer the same assistance that it would with any other agency form.
Congress established these wide-ranging requirements to ensure voter registration for all American citizens. States that carry out DMV requirements well and public assistance requirements poorly - as many have done- skew the electorate away from low-income citizens, and deficient implementation has meant that poorer citizens continue to have the lowest voter registration rates. While fewer than 50 percent of citizens in households earning $15,000 or less annually say they are registered, the rate jumps to over 80 percent for citizens in households earning more than $75,000.
Demos and Project Vote's analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data shows that state efforts to comply with the NVRA's requirement to register citizens at public assistance agencies have declined rapidly in recent years. Between 1996 and 2002, the number of voters registered at public assistance offices dropped by 56 percent while the number of voters who registered by all other means dropped just 6.5 percent over the same period, according to the FEC data. More troubling still, current voter registration results in many states cannot be measured because they have failed to collect the data as required by the NVRA.
Demos and Project Vote first requested that the DOJ take actions to address states' failure to follow the law in August. The Department met with leaders of Demos, Project Vote and People for the American Way Foundation on September 10th, received information on implementation problems, and was specifically requested to send a letter to all states reminding them of their duties under Section 7 of the NVRA. Recent experience working in states to improve NVRA implementation demonstrated that such a letter could immediately improve states compliance and potentially enfranchise countless voters prior to upcoming voter registration deadlines.
On September 23rd, the DOJ informed Demos and Project Vote that it would not send a letter to states reminding them of their duties under Section 7 of the NVRA, explaining that it had already sent a letter to all states on August 31, 2004, reminding them of mandates under the NVRA and other voting rights statutes. However, this letter, which was provided by the Department to Demos and Project Vote, fails to address Section 7 of the NVRA in any way.
Failure to provide public assistance applicants with the opportunity to register to vote is a violation of state and federal laws, one that disenfranchises thousands of citizens across the nation each day, observed Maxine Nelson, President of Project Vote. State governments should be taking immediate steps to improve their voter registration processes at offices serving the elderly, poor and disabled. And, in states that do not, both the Department of Justice and Congress should be vigorously investigating.
Though NVRA became law in 1993 and was upheld by the Federal Courts in 1995, Demos and Project Vote have found that many states are still flouting key provisions of the law. Working in states around the country, the organizations have observed a broad array of problems that help explain the negative trends found in the data.
A number of states have acknowledged failure to implement specific NVRA requirements. These lapses include:
· staff not being trained in NVRA procedures,
· registration services not being offered to individuals who change their address or communicate with offices via phone or mail,
· using outdated and invalid registration forms, and
· failure to send completed applications to elections officials.
In working to improve NVRA implementation, Demos and Project Vote have found that, with simple steps, states can quickly ramp up registration rates at public assistance offices. States that improved their results this summer:
· issued directives from top officials to public assistance agencies underscoring the criticality of following the requirements of the NVRA,
· moved the voter registration question to the front of all interviews,
· specified language caseworkers should use when asking clients if they would like to register to vote and encouraged clients to complete voter registration applications while in the office and return them to staff to be mailed in, and
· designated voter registration liaisons in each office to oversee all voter registration activities, including tracking of key data.
"Congress sought to improve democratic participation among the poor when it passed the NVRA," said Miles Rapoport. "States failure to follow the law has been, in many cases, simply shameful. Many states have widened rather than narrowed the gap that separates low-income citizens from participation in democracy. States should be acting now to remedy this situation. Moreover, like DOJ, Congress has a responsibility to investigate this issue, ascertain what has gone wrong, and ensure that noncompliant states follow the law.
"This summer we saw that, when states choose to follow the law, it becomes far easier for low-income citizens to register to vote, said Maxine Nelson. The methods for improving results are straightforward. And if states take them, they can ensure that the poor and disabled retain the core right of a citizen in a democracy, the right to vote. We will continue working on this issue until all states follow the law and protect the voting rights of our most vulnerable citizens."
Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action is a nonpartisan public policy organization based in New York. www.demos-usa.org
Project Vote is a national non-partisan voter registration and education organization based in Washington, DC. www.projectvote.org