New York, NY/Washington, DC — Today two leading national voting rights organizations, Demos and Project Vote, asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to take action to improve states' compliance with the Nation Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and ensure easy access to voter registration for thousands of citizens.
As landmark civil rights legislation, the NVRA created several mechanisms to make it easier for citizens to register to vote, including the requirement that states provide voter registration services to all applicants in public assistance agencies. Every day, however, thousands of unregistered citizens visiting public assistance offices are not presented with the opportunity to register to vote, despite state and federal law.
Eleven years after becoming law, and nine years after it was upheld in Federal court, the NVRA remains poorly implemented in most states. Agencies that are required to offer voter registration services — including those providing food stamps, disability services, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) — are ill-equipped to register voters. These agencies often go days or weeks without registering a voter, even if they have the required materials and training.
Although one of the NVRA's core mandates is to increase voting in low-income households, the dismal implementation record has meant that low-income Americans still have the lowest voter registration rates. While fewer than 60 percent of citizens in households earning $25,000 or less annually say they are registered, the rate jumps to over 80 percent for citizens in households earning more than $75,000.
"Recognizing that low-income Americans are among those least likely to visit motor vehicle offices, most likely to frequently change their address, and least likely to vote," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos, "Congress designed the NVRA to ease voter registration access to Americans with the least representation and most to lose in elections."
The latest Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports on NVRA implementation show most states yielding a decline in voter registrations at public assistance agencies. For years 2001 and 2002, the national average for voters registered in agencies was just under 3 percent, with many states falling between 0 and 2 percent.
"The decline in voter registration in welfare agencies is occurring despite evidence that millions of low-income citizens are not registered," said Maxine Nelson, President of Project Vote. "Participation in these programs has been rising steadily for several years, so there is no reason for registration performance at these agencies to remain so low."
From field observations, Project Vote and Demos have found a number of barriers to NVRA compliance on the statewide level, including:
* Voter registration procedures either do not exist for entire programs that are required to comply with the NVRA or are practically non-existent due to lax performance;
* Voter registration is not provided to clients when they change their addresses, even though this is the most important time to offer voter registration services and is required under the NVRA;
* Office materials missing required language for voter registration services;
* Agency staff members that have not been trained in voter registration procedures;
* Agencies using voter registration applications that were not current and, thus, election authorities could not process these clients' voter registrations;
* Agencies and election authorities unable to account for how many registrations have taken place by the agencies -- as required by law for bi-annual reporting to Congress.
However, there are a few states that have successfully implemented NVRA provisions and model its potential. According to FEC data, in 2001 and 2002, Nevada reported that registrations at public assistance agencies accounted for close to 20 percent of newly registered voters -- more than eight times the national average. Arizona, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington have also recently taken promising steps to improve their NVRA procedures.
"We know that the law works — when properly implemented — and the potential is huge. With more than one million people applying just for food stamps each month, this law can go a long way towards insuring that the elderly, poor and disabled have equal access to their most fundamental right in a democracy," said Maude Hurd, President of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
For more information, contact Doug Hess 202-955-5869 or Lucy Mayo at 212-419-8772.
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 nonpartisan voter registration and education organization based in Washington, DC. www.projectvote.org
ACORN, the nation's largest organization of low-income citizens, partners frequently with Project Vote in many states on voter registration activities. www.acorn.org.