New York-A newly released review of a June 27 report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) shows that voter registration application rates at state public assistance agencies have risen sharply following National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) enforcement actions by advocacy groups Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and others. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of states not targeted have continued to see a long decline in registration of lower-income residents.
The EAC report covers voter registration that occurred between the November 2008 and November 2010 elections.
"The new data underscore the effectiveness of enforcement in giving low income Americans a voice in the democratic process," said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel at Demos and co-lead counsel in a settled lawsuit against Ohio. "For example, Ohio topped the EAC list for voter registration at public assistance offices. As a result of our lawsuit, the state institutionalized procedures to offer voter registration. Those procedures will ensure that voter registration does not fall off the radar screen."
Ohio and Missouri topped the rankings in reported voter registration applications submitted at public assistance offices. Both states have settled lawsuits regarding lack of National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) compliance, brought by Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers' Committee, and others.
"After our lawsuit brought about compliance with Section 7, Missouri went from one of the worst public agency registration states to one of the best," said Nicole Zeitler, Director of Project Vote's Public Agency Voter Registration Program. "This report shows what we've always known: with proper enforcement of the NVRA, public agency voter registration is an incredibly effective way to reach lower-income Americans."
States that have made ongoing compliance a priority, like North Carolina, Colorado, and Virginia, also fared well. Each of these states worked cooperatively with either Demos or Project Vote to improve voter registration procedures at public assistance offices within the states.
"North Carolina, in 2006, was one of the first states that we worked with to revisit NVRA compliance at public assistance agencies," said Lisa Danetz. "It is not a coincidence that the turnaround in voter registration at public assistance agencies began at that time."
Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies to offer their clients the opportunity to register to vote, but too many states have been neglecting or ignoring this mandate since the law was implemented in 1995. Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers' Committee - with state and national partners - have worked to ensure stronger oversight and enforcement of Section 7 through cooperative negotiations and litigation when necessary. The new analysis of the recent and previous EAC reports shows that the turning point for improved registration rates coincides with the beginning of such NVRA enforcement advocacy, with improvement beginning after the 2005-2006 cycle.
The nonprofit advocacy groups have taken on the burden of litigation in Ohio, Missouri, and several other states, but the responsibility for enforcing the NVRA ultimately lies with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Over the years the DOJ has often been silent Section 7 enforcement, but most states where they did intervene also show higher levels of voter registration at public assistance offices. Tennessee has been in the top three since it entered into a consent decree with DOJ in late 2002. Illinois, which entered a pre-litigation settlement during the Bush Administration, came in sixth in terms of the absolute number of people submitting voter registration applications at public assistance offices.
DOJ under the Obama Administration has only recently begun enforcement action. DOJ entered a consent decree with Rhode Island in March 2011, too recent to show any impact in the current EAC report, and also filed a lawsuit in Louisiana just yesterday.
"The new EAC data show that state officials are continuing to neglect their NVRA responsibilities. We are proud of the results achieved with our coalition partners and pro bono co-counsel, but the Justice Department must bring more of its resources and authority to bear on the problem", said Robert Kengle, Co-Director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project. "Private plaintiffs and public interest groups should supplement vigorous Justice Department enforcement of the NVRA rather than act as the front line."
Unfortunately, the data in the EAC Report show that many states continue to ignore their responsibilities. While registrations at agencies serving low-income Americans rose after the federal mandates in the NVRA went into effect, they have dropped off by 57% since 1995. This is evident, for example, by the dismal numbers in Georgia. Other states, like Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and West Virginia, failed to report data on the issue to the EAC.
Demos and Project Vote are continuing to analyze the data and will put out further analyses in the future. Analysis of the EAC's past NVRA reports can be found here: http://bit.ly/n5gup0 and here: http://bit.ly/qU3zYb.
For more information or to speak with Demos, Project Vote, or the Lawyers' Committee experts, see the contacts below.
Alex Amend, [email protected], (212) 389-1411
Nicole Zeitler, [email protected], (202) 271-5101
Stacie Royster, [email protected]awyerscommittee.org, (202) 662-8317