Democracy and Elections

Low-Income Americans Denied Registration Opportunities

Many states are failing to offer low-income Americans the registration opportunities required by law. Why is this happening?
As the nation prepares for the 2008 election, a new study reveals that many states are routinely failing to offer low-income Americans an opportunity to register to vote as required by the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007, published this week by the non-partisan voting rights groups Demos and Project Vote, shows that 12 years after the NVRA's requirements went into effect, voter registrations from public agencies that provide services to low-income Americans have declined dramatically.
Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007 examines voter registration data state by state, finding that in states across the nation -- Virginia, Florida, Texas, Nevada and many others -- public assistance agencies are neglecting to offer voter registration to all clients and applicants, as required by the law. Because of noncompliance with the NVRA, the rights of thousands of low-income citizens are violated daily.

"All Americans should have an opportunity to register and vote, but states are ignoring a federal law that requires them to offer voter registration to low-income citizens. In 2006, more than twice as many low-income Americans were unregistered as upper-income Americans. States need to follow the law. If they do, we can close the registration gap between rich and poor," says Unequal Access co-author Douglas R. Hess. "Our democracy works best when everyone, not just some, are allowed to participate."

Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007 findings underscore widespread state failures in enforcing the NVRA, including:

  • Registrations from public assistance agencies have declined 79 percent between 1995, when the Act was first implemented in, and 2006; in other words, registrations declined from 2.6 million to just 540,000 by the 2005-2006 reporting period.


  • Field investigations and analysis of available data strongly suggest that low registration rates are a result of states' noncompliance with the law.


  • 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 (40 percent) of voting-age citizens from households earning under $25,000 were unregistered.


  • The U.S. Department of Justice has failed in recent years to actively enforce the public assistance provisions of the NVRA. This is despite being provided with evidence of noncompliance by Project Vote, Demos, Congressional leaders and others.


The NVRA was enacted in 1993 with the goal of increasing the number of eligible citizens registered to vote. The law requires states to offer citizens an opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver's license ("motor voter") and when citizens apply for public assistance benefits such as Food Stamps or Medicaid. The latter provision was designed to reduce disparities in the voting population based on race and income.

"When public assistance agencies offer voter registration as the law requires, their clients register to vote," says Unequal Access co-author Scott Novakowski. "States like North Carolina and Iowa have recently improved their agency registration procedures, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of low-income citizens registering to vote. If all states were to fully comply with the law, thousands of eligible low-income voters could be drawn into the democratic process every day."

In conjunction with the publication of Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007, Project Vote and Demos has sent notices to Arizona and Florida for non-compliance with NVRA. Such notices are required before initiating litigation.

For more information about the National Voter Registration Act and to download a copy of Unequal Access, visit www.projectvote.org or www.demos.org.
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