Des Moines, Iowa — Today, national voting rights groups ACORN, Demos, and Project Vote released a report highlighting Iowa's "best practices" for offering voter registration in human services agencies offices, as required by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The new study, A Promise Unfulfilled: Ten Years Later, finds most states noncompliant with this NVRA requirement, known as "Section 7", more than a decade after it was passed into law. Section 7 was intended to help reverse a long decline in electoral participation and under-representation of the poor, disabled and millions who do not have direct access to other agencies that offer voter registration, like Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and instead utilize human services offices.
When drafting NVRA, Congress recognized that the well-known "motor voter" mandate would miss millions of low-income citizens and disabled Americans, who are less likely to own cars and who change addresses frequently. These same citizens are also twice as likely to be unregistered as the average person, and had declining voter turnout over the years. To help reverse this trend, NVRA Section 7 designates Food Stamp, Medicaid and other social services offices as voter registration centers. However, while most states remain noncompliant with Section 7, Iowa has recently taken direct action for its implementation.
"We realized that, even in a high voter-participation state like Iowa, there was room for improvement, and it's been gratifying to see such positive results gained by bringing together the key human assistance agencies. They can be proud that they helped put Iowa out in front as a national model and leader in bringing more of our citizens into the Democratic process as voters," said Chet Culver, Secretary of the State of Iowa. "But make no mistake, constant vigilance is needed to ensure that no eligible voters are left on the sidelines — for whatever reasons."
In the summer of 2004, an NVRA Improvement Team was convened in Iowa with representatives from the Governor's office, the Secretary of State's office and various human services agencies. This team created an implementation plan and as a result, the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS) initiated NVRA improvement efforts with an action memo to office managers highlighting voter registration processes and the importance of implementing new procedures. After receiving this memo, DHS, DVRS and WIC offices implemented some or all of the following:
* Designated voter registration supervisors in every local office;
* Established voter registration in waiting rooms and office reception areas;
* Included registration forms in materials sent to every client changing his or her address;
* Reported on voter registration activity weekly — more frequently than previously;
* Used an automated reporting system to improve tracking of all agency voter registration activities;
* Placed posters, videos and buttons in offices to promote voter registration services.
As a result of these efforts, DHS and WIC increased voter registrations by 3,000% over registrations for the same period in the previous year-and 700% over the same period for the 2000 General Election.
"Thanks to decisive action by Secretary Culver, human services agencies are not only meeting the letter of the law, but are truly strengthening Iowa's democracy," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos and former Connecticut Secretary of State." Voter registration at the DMV-another requirement of the National Voter Registration Act-has become a successful, central component of our electoral process, and thanks to the Secretary and officials from DHS, WIC and DVRS, voter registration at public assistance agencies has rightly been given the same priority."
Unfortunately, Iowa's recent pro-voter activities are an exception to the rule. While "motor voter" has been wildly successful, Section 7 registrations have declined precipitously nationwide. Using data from the Federal Election Commission and the Election Assistance Commission, A Promise Unfulfilled shows that virtually every other state-36 of 41 reporting-has experienced a sharp drop in voter registration applications from human services agencies since 1995. During the same period, human services registration applications nationwide dropped by 59.6% while applications from all other sources, including DMVs and mail-in registration, rose more than 22%.
"Our analysis indicates an abysmal lack of success registering voters in social service offices in most other states," said Maxine Nelson, President of Project Vote. "Iowa is a good example of how simple, sensiblesteps can make a world of difference; other states should follow suit." For more information, visit www.demos.org or www.projectvote.org.