Full Implementation of National Voter Registration Act Requirement Improves Registration Among Low-Income Voters
New York, NY — Virginia has this year taken a number of steps to be in full compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, specifically its requirement that states provide voter registration services in public assistance agencies, according to a new report published this week by Demos, a national election reform and voting rights policy center.
Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) with two primary aims: increasing voter registration opportunities and ensuring the integrity of the voting process. Yet, while most states created effective programs for mail-in and Department of Motor Vehicles-based registration processes, many neglected the NVRA's Section 7 requirement that states offer voter registration in public assistance agencies.
The new study published this week, entitled Expanding Voter Registration for Low-Income Virginians: The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act, details how the state's public assistance voter registration services, as mandated by the NVRA, had lapsed in recent years. In April 2008 Demos, along with local groups Democracy South, the Virginia Organizing Project, and the Virginia Conference of the NAACP, notified the State Board of Elections and the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) of their declining registration numbers in public assistance offices. The state responded almost immediately to help bring the state into full compliance with the law by following a set of recommendations developed in collaboration with Demos and its partners.
In the early part of the decade, registrations at public assistance agencies had declined sharply. Report findings include:
--Public assistance voter registrations in Virginia declined by 87 percent between 1995-1996 and 2005-2006, from 54,051 to 7,030 despite consistent levels of participation in those programs.
--A sizeable gap in voter registration among Virginians remains over the first ten year period of agency-based voter registration: In 2006, only 58 percent of Virginia citizens in households making less than $25,000 a year were registered to vote, compared to 81 percent of those making $100,000 or more.
--In early 2008, field investigations by Demos partner Democracy South showed that seven of the nine DSS offices visited by investigators did not have voter registration applications on sitea clear violation of the NVRA. At several locations, office staff indicated that they were "completely unaware" of any obligation to provide voter registration to clients. Of 90 clients interviewed outside seven DSS offices, only eight had been asked verbally about voter registration during their visit and many did not recall seeing the required declination question in their application materials.
"For whatever reason, NVRA duties had simply fallen off Virginia's radar. But once state officials were alerted to the problem, they quickly took action and made the necessary corrections," said Allegra Chapman, report co-author and Counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos.
Once notified, the Virginia Department of Social Services took immediate steps, with guidance from Demos and state groups, to meet Section 7 requirements, including: circulating a bulletin to all VDSS employees reminding them of their responsibilities under NVRA; identifying NVRA coordinators for each county; developing an NVRA compliance re-training program for VDSS employees; offering voter registration forms on VDSS websites; implementing monthly reporting of local VDSS offices to state officials; among others.
Results of the improved compliance were almost immediate:
--The first several data reports under the new plan indicate an eightfold increase in voter registrations. Between implementation of the new procedures in June 2008 through the end of September 2008, VDSS registered 9,612 voters, an average of 2,403 per month. In contrast, the state had registered only 7,030 voters at public assistance agencies in all of 2005 and 2006 combined, an average of only 293 per month.
--Many of Virginia's localities are able to register a significant percentage of those clients interacting with their offices. For example, Norfolk City, one of the more populous localities in the state, registered over 16 percent of those clients applying for Food Stamps in August. Twenty-seven jurisdictions were able to register over 20 percent of those applying for Food Stamps in August, a powerful testament to the importance of the NVRA in reaching low-income citizens.
"The results in Virginia are dramatic, yet consistent with those seen in other states that have recently taken steps to comply with the NVRA's agency-based registration requirements," said Scott Novakowski, Senior Policy Analyst in the Democracy Program at Demos and the report's co-author. He noted that North Carolina had registered over 63,000 low-income citizens in its public assistance agencies in a year and a half after State Board of Elections undertook compliance efforts, and that Michigan's Department of Human Services has registered over 21,400 voters in the past seven months after a comprehensive implementation program.
"The evidence from Virginia and those of others states shows that agency-based voter registration is proven to work, and all states still not in full compliance with the law are doing a great disservice to their citizens," Novakowski said. "They should look to Virginia and others with recent successes and work vigorously to adopt similar models."