States Fail to Offer Voter Registration to Millions of Low-Income Voters

News & Politics

Millions of low-income and minority voters are being denied opportunities to register to vote by state agencies that are violating a federal voting law, according to members of Congress and voting rights groups.

The ongoing failure has led to a nearly 80 percent drop-off in registering low-income applicants at state social services agencies over a decade, according to a recent report by the non-partisan voter advocacy research groups Project Vote and Demos.

"This noncompliance means the disenfranchisement of millions of low-income citizens, and a widening of the gap between the registration rates of high and low-income individuals," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the chairwoman of a House elections subcommittee that held hearings this spring on the widespread violations of Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

The under-enforced 1993 law is better known the "motor voter" law. Minority citizens lag behind white voter registration by as much 10 percent for blacks, and roughly 20 percent for Hispanics and Asian-Americans, in part because they are disproportionately low-income.

If minorities voted at the same rate as whites, there would be 7.5 million more minority voters on Election Day, Project Vote reported last fall. Just as troubling, 40 percent of adults in households with less than $25,000 in annual incomes are unregistered, compared to only 20 percent from those with family incomes above $100,000.

These disparities are worsened by other state and federal actions that limit access to voter registration and voting.

Battleground states such as Florida also impose draconian restrictions on voter registration groups seeking to register low-income voters. VA hospitals bar on-site voter registration drives of wounded soldiers. And states have toughened voter ID requirements, led by Indiana's photo ID law that was upheld by the Supreme Court in April.

In addition, some states, including Louisiana, are facing challenges to their efforts to hastily purge many thousands of often minority voters from their rolls. In response to these alarming trends, Project Vote declared last week, "Voter purges are one of several problems in the administration of elections that could not only bar legal voters from the polls, but could potentially influence the outcome of close races," including the tight Presidential race.

Some Progress Made

Although there has been relatively little cause for optimism on voting rights, a few recent legal actions have offered some rays of hope amid a generally grim picture of widespread barriers to voting. Unfortunately, this pattern of vote suppression has too often been abetted by a partisan Department of Justice. Yet just two weeks ago, the grass-roots advocacy group ACORN, backed by Project Vote and the public policy research group Demos, won an important victory for disenfranchised poor voters. A federal court ordered Missouri's Department of Human Services to finally comply with the NVRA, that federal law requiring the state's social welfare offices to provide voter registration applications and assistance to their clients. "This order could lead to more than hundred thousand new voters from low-income communities that have historically been under represented in the political process," said Jeff Ordower, Missouri ACORN's head organizer.

Even the Bush Department of Justice told Senate Democrats in a letter in mid-July that it was probing other state agencies with poor registration rates, and in May, it reached a settlement with the state of Arizona to enforce social services outreach to low-income voters.

"We are actively investigating a number of jurisdictions which have admitted to low voter registration rates at state public assistance agencies," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keith Nelson said, without disclosing them.

The Justice Department letter was, in part, an apparent response to mounting pressure from Congress and advocacy groups over the continuing law-breaking by states that won't enforce the NVRA. The House elections subcommittee hearings chaired by Rep. Lofgren were followed by letters in April from leading House and Senate Democrats, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to the Department of Justice demanding that the agency take far more aggressive action to enforce Section 7. Instead, the DOJ has been using another provision of the law to force states and localities to enact widespread voter purges. "This creates the impression, whether founded or not, that the Department is more concerned with removing names from the voter rolls than adding them," said Sen. Whitehouse and other liberal colleagues.

Advocacy groups, led by Project Vote and Demos, have also been writing to the worst-performing states, warning them that they had to obey the law. This is a required prelude to potential lawsuits by these groups against such states as New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida. Indeed, a Project Vote follow-up survey released in early May of clients at 63 offices in Arizona, New Mexico and five other NVRA-violating states found that most social services clients weren't offered an opportunity to register. (One of those states, Arizona, has since reached a settlement with DOJ, agreeing to implement such major reforms as offering registration assistance to all clients.) The results from this latest survey were shocking: Only 18 percent of nearly 420 clients surveyed received any voter registration services. "Because of noncompliance with the NVRA," as Project Vote and Demos reported in Unequal Access earlier this year, "the rights of thousands of low-income citizens are violated daily."

A 'New' Justice Department?

Surprisingly, in only its second Section 7 enforcement action in eight years, the new John Mukasey-led DOJ actually has begun responding to all the increased pressure. In mid-May the department reached the agreement with Arizona to provide registration assistance. And the department's recent letter to Sen. Whitehouse and other Senators claims it is "committed to ensuring compliance" with federal voting laws, despite its notoriously poor record in civil rights under Bush.

Although DOJ hasn't publicly announced other enforcement actions since settling with Arizona, Congressional staffers see welcome initial signs of progress at the Justice Department. "We're encouraged by the Arizona settlement," says an aide to Sen. Whitehouse. "It's a positive step forward, and we certainly hope to see aggressive enforcement of the law so that Americans' rights to vote are protected."

If the Justice Department doesn't take further actions, Project Vote and other voting advocacy groups are likely to sue the worst-performing states if their negotiations with them fail. These include New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida, according to Doug Hess, a Project Vote consultant on NVRA. "There are only a few states that do it well," he says.

Those few states have often responded only to enforcement actions and the threat of lawsuits, leading to major reforms that have dramatically increased voting by poor voters. For instance, in his Congressional testimony, Project Vote's Deputy Director, Michael Slater, pointed to the turnaround in Tennessee resulting from a DOJ lawsuit in 2002 -- the only section 7 lawsuit brought by the department in the last eight years. With the state's welfare agencies now filing over 50,000 registration applications a year, Slater stressed, "During the 2006 election cycle, one in five voter registrations from public aid offices in the nation came from Tennessee."

A few other state officials, including those in Virginia and North Carolina, have actively embraced reforms after being presented with the disturbing Project Vote and Demos findings of low voter registration by their aid agencies. A 2006 survey, for instance, found that in some North Carolina welfare offices, not a single voter registration form was offered to any client. Within months, that state's board of elections, working with the governor, demanded that agency officials boost registration results, and backed it up with random, unannounced investigations. Annual registration by recipients then jumped six-fold. It's not just civic duty at work, however: In her testimony before Congress, Johnnie McLean, the deputy director of the North Carolina board of elections, observed, "We are appreciative of advocates' willingness to work with us, rather than file litigation against us."

Problem States Persist

New Mexico, on the other hand, denies any wrongdoing and will probably be sued before November's election. Matthew Henderson, New Mexico ACORN's head organizer, points to registration numbers that "continue to be horrible" from New Mexico's Human Services Department. Although improving in some local offices since January, the agency's own figures have shown as few as six registered voters in one social service office in Albuquerque, according to Doug Hess, an NVRA specialist with Project Vote. As Henderson observes, "They're passing up an opportunity to register people who are walking in their door, and it's very difficult for us to go out and find them." Paul Ritzma, the general counsel for the state's Human Services Department, blames poor quality reporting for any low numbers, and insists, "We're doing everything we're supposed to do."

Yet while state agencies in New Mexico and Florida have registered relatively few poor citizens, those states also try to thwart non-profit groups that try to register those same voters. They've passed draconian registration laws that threaten to punish canvassers and groups such as ACORN and the League of Women Voters with stiff fines and jail terms if they run afoul of petty rules, such as failing to turn in registration forms within 48 hours

In New Mexico, as a result of the restrictive law, registration plunged to 2,000 new applicants in 2006 from 35,000 two years earlier. This year, ACORN managed to comply with the law and register 40,000 voters so far this year, but at a very heavy cost of adding over a dozen quality-control staffers to meet the 48-hour deadline. Henderson says. "We'd rather be spending our money on doing more follow-up with new voters to get them thinking about issues and hiring more full-time organizers."

To top it all off, while voting rights groups are draining their resources because state agencies fail to register low-income and minority voters, some states, in essence, are also targeting those voters by indiscriminate purges of voter rolls. Nearly 500,000 black voters were purged from voting rolls in Ohio in the last two election cycles. Now, in Louisiana, Project Vote is challenging allegedly illegal state efforts to drop thousands of voters -- many of whom are minorities -- because they appear to be duplicates of voters registered in other states, based solely on similarities in birthdates and names.

Campaign Impact Unknown

Despite the array of barriers to registration and voting, the Democratic Party and Obama campaign still seem to be counting on massive voter registration drives to help sweep their candidates into office. Neither the Obama campaign nor the DNC would comment on their "voter protection" plans. But if past history is any guide, leading voting rights activists aren't counting on Democrats to go beyond registering voters to effectively protecting voting rights.

"Democrats don't get it," says Matthew Henderson of ACORN. The grass-roots advocacy organization has faced GOP-led smears over voter fraud -- and state laws restricting registration -- because of its success nationally in registering over 1.6 million voters since 2003.

ACORN has ramped up new quality controls over canvassers and challenged assorted voting restrictions as it pushes to add 1.2 million new voters in this year's election. But it's not clear that the well-funded Democratic registration drives will do the same.

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