The DOJ's Obligation to Low Income Voters

During the past 15 years, state compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, the only federal law requiring government agencies to offer voter-registration services, has been uneven at best and abysmal at worst.

This has been especially true at state public assistance agencies, where applicants for benefits are supposed to be asked if they want to register to vote and helped to do so if they reply affirmatively. In 1995-1996, the first  federal election cycle that the NVRA was in effect, 2.6 million voter-registration applications were submitted nationwide through these state offices. In 2007-2008, the number was less than a million.

There are reasons for the drop in voter applications—starting with resistance by state agencies to the NVRA’s requirements. But the law is the law, and it appears that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is finally doing what no recent administration has done: taking the NVRA seriously and telling  states to do a better job.

In June, the Voting Section issued its first-ever guidelines, advising states how to comply with the National Voter Registration Act. The guidelines focus on voter registration requirements at state motor vehicle, public assistance, disability, and other agencies, as well as on procedures that must be followed so that registered voters are not erroneously removed from voter lists.

We at Project Vote hope the guidelines will help the NVRA fulfill its historic promise to make voter registration more accessible for all. The law was passed after low turnout in the 1992 presidential election, and Congress’s intent was to enable citizens of all races and all income levels to register to vote at state offices where they needed to go anyway–such as those providing public assistance, motor vehicle, and disability services.

How important is DOJ enforcement likely to be? The short answer is, very important. Project Vote and its allies have sued a number of states in recent years for failing to implement the NVRA at public assistance agencies, and the results are stunning.

In Missouri, where a settlement was reached in August 2008, more than 230,000 people have since submitted registration applications at state public assistance agencies. In Ohio, more than 100,000 applications have been collected at public assistance agencies since January 2010. In North Carolina, where litigation was avoided, more than 78,000 applications were submitted at public assistance agencies in 2007-2008. In Tennessee, where the Justice Department sued eight years ago, 158,000 applications came in this way. In Colorado, where the Secretary of State made compliance a priority, more than 31,000 applications came via public assistance agencies in 2008, a six-fold increase from 2007.

In contrast, what are the 2007-2008 numbers from under-performing states? Texas, reporting its numbers for those two years to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, had 6,338 voter registration applications. California, 6,662 applications; Georgia, 21,762; Pennsylvania, 6,390; Nevada, 4,301; and Indiana had 2,519 in two years.

Based on the number of food stamp recipients nationwide—which was more than 40 million in April 2010—Project Vote believes that at least several million low-income people would register to vote at public assistance agencies if given the chance. That is based on post-litigation results, where 10 percent or more of benefit applicants register after being asked by public assistance agency employees, as the NVRA requires.

It is important to remember whom we are talking about when we discuss low-income voters. Nearly two-thirds are women—often single parents—according to U.S. Census reports. Many are people of color, coming from a variety of minority communities.

Low-income people historically have not been well represented by the major political parties. The attention they receive in the media pales in contrast to the almost all-white Tea Party movement. Yet in 2008, this often-overlooked electoral block registered and voted at record rates compared to past presidential elections. In other words, these eligible voters will turn out and vote if given the opportunity to do so.

So far, the Justice Department’s actions are reassuring. After issuing its NVRA compliance guidelines in June,  Department lawyers went “on the road” in July, making presentations on the guidelines and enforcement priorities at conventions of state officials who implement the law (secretaries of state, election administrators, motor vehicle office directors).

During the 2008 presidential campaign, some partisans criticized community-based registration drives that targeted low-income voters. Registration problems would be fewer—and community-based voter registration drives far less necessary—if state agencies were in compliance with the NVRA.

Project Vote and its partners—Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and many state-based civil rights groups—believe that hundreds of thousands of applications submitted at public assistance agencies will result in greater turnout in 2010 by low-income voters, a historically under-represented cohort. All eligible voters should participate in the nation’s civic affairs, and vigorous enforcement of the NVRA by the Department of Justice will help to make that happen.

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