February 11, 2008
Recognizing that burdensome and discriminatory voter registration laws have a damaging impact on American democracy, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 to make voter registration more accessible, with the hope of reducing disparities in voting among various populations. The NVRA remains one of the nation's most important voting rights laws.Although millions of citizens have taken advantage of voter registration opportunities created by the NVRA, key provisions of the law meant to reach populations with low voter registration rates have been poorly and inconsistently administered in many states.Specifically, states have failed to adequately implement--and the Department of Justice has in recent years failed in their duty to enforce--NVRA provisions that require states to offer voter registration in government agencies providing public assistance benefits.Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007details the following:The number of voter registration applications from public assistance agencies in 2005-2006 is a small fraction of what it was in 1995-1996, when the NVRA was first implemented (see Figure 1 and Tables 1a and 1b). Indeed, registrations from public assistance agencies declined by 79 percent during this time.The decline in registrations from public assistance agencies occurred despite the fact that millions of citizens from low-income households remain unregistered. In 2006, 13 million, or 40 percent of, voting-aged citizens from households earning under $25,000 were unregistered .Many states frequently fail to report data on their public assistance agency registrations to the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), as required for the EAC's biennial report to Congress.Recent surveys of clients at public assistance agency sites in more than half a dozen states have found numerous instances where voter registration was not being offered as required by the NVRA; voter registration applications were completely absent at some agency sites.States that have adopted improved NVRA procedures have seen dramatic increases in voter registrations at public assistance agencies, indicating the potential for substantial improvement in other states.The Department of Justice has taken little action in recent years to enforce the public assistance agency registration requirements of the NVRA, despite being repeatedly presented with strong evidence of states' noncompliance.Based on the outcomes in states where recent compliance efforts have been undertaken, states can improve their compliance with the NVRA and increase the number of low-income citizens registering to vote by implementing recommended procedures, outlined in this report, to improve training, monitoring and reporting by agencies.The NVRA is the only federal law requiring the government to affirmatively offer voter registration to broad segments of the population. Because of noncompliance with the NVRA, however, the rights of thousands of low-income citizens are violated daily across the nation. Project Vote and Demos call on state election and public assistance officials to take immediate action to properly implement this important civil rights law. We also call on the Department of Justice to fulfill its role by actively enforcing the NVRA's requirement for voter registration at public assistance agencies.