Scott Novakowski

Voter Rolls Grow As States Help Poor People Register

Elections officials are already anticipating record turnout in states across the country. Much media attention has been paid to the massive numbers of new voters – many from historically underrepresented communities – that have been registered to vote this election cycle. To that end, several states have made significant improvements in their effort to comply with a federal law meant specifically to boost participation, and representation, of low-income Americans.

U.S. citizens on the bottom end of the income scale have historically been underrepresented in our electorate. Just looking at the numbers from 2006 tells us how far we haven’t come: only 60 percent of citizens in households making less than $25,000 were registered to vote compared to 80 percent of those in households making $100,000 or more. The National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993, sought to close this gap by, among other things, requiring public assistance agencies to offer voter registration services to their clients. Research by Demos and our partners reveals that, even 15 years after the law was passed, many states are failing in their responsibility to adequately implement the NVRA’s agency-based registration requirement. While the law’s “motor voter” provision is widely implemented and well-known, this other -- known as Section 7 of the law -- has been long ignored.

Several states, however, have seen enormous progress in the past months in providing low-income citizens the opportunity to register. Thanks to the bold actions and dedication of election and public assistance officials in North Carolina, Michigan, and Virginia, as well as a recent court order in Missouri, tens of thousands of low-income voters now have an opportunity to participate in the upcoming election.

North Carolina
After being presented with statistical data and evidence from field investigations indicating noncompliance in summer 2006, the North Carolina State Board of Elections, led by Executive Director Gary Bartlett, acted quickly to put in place an effective re-implementation plan. As a result of the plan and follow-up work conducted by Mr. Bartlett and the SBOE, North Carolina’s public assistance agencies registered over 63,000 voters since February 2007, an average of 3,152 voters per month. In contrast, the state only registered 11,607 voters in all of 2005-2006, an average of only 484 voters per month. In all, North Carolina has experienced a six-fold increase in the number of registration in their public assistance offices.

Under the leadership of Director Ismael Ahmed, Michigan’s Department of Human Services began working with Demos in early 2008 to design and implement a comprehensive Civic Engagement Initiative. DHS’ initiative went beyond the minimal requirements of providing voter registration services to include public service announcements by Michigan celebrities, partnerships with community groups such as the League of Women Voters, and Voter Registration Fairs, events that included demonstrations of voting machines and copies of sample ballots. Since implementing a new computerized data collection system in March 2008, Michigan DHS offices registered over 21,456 voters, an average of 3,065 per month.

In the ten years since initial implementation in 1995-1996, the number of applications from Virginia’s public assistance agencies declined at least 87 percent, from 54,051 applications to only 7,030. Investigations by Demos’ partner Democracy South found that seven of nine offices visited did not even have voter registration applications on site. Within weeks of being presented with these findings, officials from the Virginia Department of Social Services and the State Board of Elections agreed to a meeting in Richmond with representatives from Demos, Democracy South, the Virginia Organizing Project, the state Conference of the NAACP, and the ACLU. A compliance plan was adopted within days and, within a month, all employees were trained on voter registration procedures and a data collection system was in place. In June, July, and August, VDSS has registered 6,769 public assistance clients. The first few months of data indicate am almost eight-fold increase in registrations as a result of their compliance plan.

In July 2008, a federal court in Kansas City ordered the Missouri Department of Social Services to fully implement the NVRA at its public assistance offices. Plaintiffs ACORN and a Missouri resident were represented by Demos, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Dewey & LeBoeuf and local counsel. In her ruling, the judge found that the state’s own records indicated that DSS was approximately one million forms short of the number needed to be in compliance with the law. Furthermore, at least one employee had allowed completed voter registration forms to pile up on her desk for a year without turning them in to election officials.

Registrations in DSS offices skyrocketed as a result of the judge’s order. In a single month, DSS offices registered over 17,600 voters. In comparison, Missouri’s public assistance agencies (which also includes the Department of Health and Senior Services) registered only 15,500 voters in all of 2005 and 2006, an average of only 649 registrations per month. When ordered to comply with the law, Missouri DSS increased its average number of registrations per month by some 2,600 percent.

In state after state, recent agency-based compliance efforts are proven to dramatically increase voter registrations among lower-income Americans. These states are now realizing the promise of the NVRA, and in the process, doing a great service to the people in their states whose voice in government is too often drowned out.

The adoption of similar plans nationwide could go a long way in eliminating the income gap that has marred the U.S. election system for decades.

Millions of Women Voters Disenfranchised

All over America, there were plenty of reasons to celebrate women last month: August marked the 88th anniversary of the 19th Amendment's ratification, which gave women the right to vote. Women's Equality Day, which was on August 26, commemorated that victory. There are now more women in the U.S. Congress than ever (88) and 2008 was a year when a woman came within a hair's breadth of becoming a major ticket presidential nominee.

But this year, there's also a real threat to the voting rights of millions of low-income women, and it is in direct violation of Federal law.

Take, for instance, the story of Dionne O'Neal. Ms. O'Neal is a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, where she works part-time while pursuing her GED. Like millions of Americans, Ms. O'Neal receives Food Stamps and government health care benefits to help meet her basic needs. If anybody has a deep concern about the future of economic policy, she does. But her right to have a say in government and what it does is being thwarted because Missouri, like many other states, has long ignored federal voter registration requirements designed to reach low-income voters.

The most disadvantaged women in our society are the least likely to express their voice in the political process. Ms. O'Neal is just one of the 32.5 million women -- 31 percent of all eligible women -- who were not registered to vote at their current address in 2006. Low-income women like Ms. O'Neal are disproportionately represented in that number. In 2006, only 63 percent of women in households making $25,000 or less were registered to vote compared to 81 percent of women in households making $75,000 or more.

There is, though, a federal law on the books to help reverse this trend.

Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 to increase the number of eligible citizens registering to vote in federal elections. Recognizing that an unrepresentative electorate is one of the greatest threats to a fair democratic system, the NVRA was drafted specifically to ensure equal access to voter registration. One of the law's provisions, Section 7, requires public assistance agencies to offer voter registration services to clients.

But many people eligible to register under Section 7 don't know it, because too many states aren't properly implementing the law.

While over 2.6 million voters registered at public assistance agencies in the first few years of the law's implementation, agency-based registration has declined significantly over the past 10 years even though more and more people are receiving public benefits such as Food Stamps. Field investigations conducted by Demos and our partners have revealed violations of the law in states across the country.

Women comprise the vast majority of public assistance recipients and thus are the primary beneficiaries of Section 7. A staggering 90 percent of adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are women. Nearly 8.8 million Food Stamp recipients are women. Sixty-nine percent of those receiving Medicaid are women.

And women are likely to be the primary caregivers for children and receive benefits on behalf of their dependents. Not surprisingly, according to the US Census, over three quarters of those who manage to register to vote at public assistance agencies are female.

Now more than ever, implementation and compliance with the too-long ignored National Voter Registration Act is a women's issue. The most disadvantaged members of society are least likely to participate in politics but arguably have the most to gain-low-income women lag behind in education, have less access to healthcare and affordable housing, have fewer assets, and experience more job insecurity.

The current economic downturn only makes matters worse for low income women, as single mothers have the highest unemployment rate among all men and women. Various policies, including enhanced educational opportunities and increased paid family leave, have been proposed to improve the lives of low-income women and their families. Unfortunately, politicians will not respond properly to the needs of these women if they do not exercise their political power.

There are increasing signs that states will no longer be able to ignore their responsibilities under the law. In a lawsuit brought by Ms. O'Neal, a federal judge in Missouri recently ruled that the state's Department of Social Services is in violation of the NVRA and ordered the state to comply.

Ensuring that voter registration is offered to the millions of women who participate in public assistance programs is an effective and efficient way to draw low-income women into the political process in unprecedented numbers, providing them with the voice they desperately need.