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New Project Vote Report Evaluates Fifteen Years of the NVRA

Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matter's Blog

By Michael McDunnah

Signed into law by President Clinton in May of 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was hailed by some as “the final achievement of the 1960's voting rights revolution,” and proponents estimated that it would add 50 million Americans to the voting rolls. However, in a comprehensive new report released today by Project Vote, The NVRA at Fifteen: A Report to Congress, voting rights attorney Estelle Rogers finds that lack of enforcement, failures of state and federal leadership, and restrictive court decisions have left the full potential of the NVRA unrealized, and have left millions of disenfranchised Americans still awaiting the promise of a truly inclusive democracy.

The stated goals of the NVRA were to increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote, to make it possible for state governments to affirmatively enhance participation, and to protect the integrity of the election process and voter rolls. “This sounds as American as apple pie,” says Frances Fox Piven, noted voting rights scholar and activist, in her foreword to The NVRA at Fifteen. “But as Estelle Rogers explains in the report–the first of its kind to comprehensively evaluate the implementation of the NVRA–the reform of American registration procedures has met widespread resistance, some of it attributable no doubt to bureaucratic inertia, and some of it perhaps politically motivated.”

During the first two years of its implementation, the NVRA contributed to one of the largest expansions of the voter rolls in American history. But many states have resisted or rejected the mandates of the NVRA since its passage, often challenging them in court, while others have been allowed to ignore their responsibilities due to lax enforcement by the Department of Justice. As a result, fifteen years after the passage of the NVRA, voter registration was once again cited frequently as THE PROBLEM marring the 2008 election. Tremendous disparities in the electorate still remain, controversies rage across the country over voter registration and list maintenance issues, and some seven million Americans–according to the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey–either attempted unsuccessfully to vote or were discouraged from voting by administrative barriers. It is clear that many problems the NVRA sought to address remain uncured, and its full promise remains unfulfilled.

“It is important to assess what has been accomplished and suggest what might be done to achieve the level of civic participation envisioned by the statute's drafters in 1993,” Rogers says. The NVRA at Fifteen is the first in-depth evaluation of how four major provisions of the NVRA have–and more importantly haven't–been successfully implemented: the “motor voter” program, establishing voter registration through motor vehicle offices (Section 5 of the NVRA); the creation of a simple, universally accepted mail-in registration form (Section 6); voter registration through public assistance agencies serving low-income families and people with disabilities (Section 7); and the regulation of how states can and cannot remove voters from the rolls (Section 8).

The “motor voter” program is the best known of the NVRA's mandates, and it has also been the most successful, according to Rogers, though “poor training requirements and lack of oversight and accountability of motor vehicle offices have led to problems with noncompliance.”

The least successful, “without question,” has been public agency registration–not because it doesn't work, but because states are ignoring their responsibilities to provide it. “After initial success in its first two years of implementation,” Rogers writes, “Section 7 has been largely neglected (and in some cases almost wholly ignored) by many state agencies. A lack of authority on the part of chief election officials over state public agencies, and a failure on the part of the Department of Justice to enforce the requirement, have contributed to the pervasive failure of Section 7, to the disadvantage of millions of eligible low-income and minority Americans.” (Project Vote and a coalition of voting rights groups have been working to bring several states into compliance with the public agency requirements of the NVRA, which the groups estimate could bring two to three million additional low-income voters into the electorate every year.)

The NVRA's attempts to protect eligible voters from improper purges have also been largely ineffective, according to the report. The NVRA lays out very clear criteria for removing voters from the rolls, but “these standards have been often misunderstood, reinterpreted, or ignored by states, resulting in list maintenance and voter purging programs that have violated the NVRA and disenfranchised eligible voters.”

In the report, Rogers recommends several ways to improve the implementation of the NVRA nationwide, including practices that states can adopt to improve their compliance and suggestions for legislative changes Congress could enact to give the law more clarity and teeth. But the report identifies “several other more fruitful routes to improving the NVRA.”

The Department of Justice, which is charged with enforcement of the NVRA, has recently been “asleep at the switch,” according to Rogers. The DOJ has the responsibility to sue states that are out of compliance, and provide standards and guidance for states to comply, but for many years the Department has “simply has not taken advantage of its substantial authority, and the voters have suffered as a result.”

“Finally,” Rogers says, “the President of the United States, himself a former voter registration organizer and NVRA litigator, has extensive executive authority to breathe new life into the NVRA by exercising leadership over the Department of Justice and over other cabinet-level departments whose programs are or should be voter registration agencies.”

As Rogers states in her conclusion, “if the NVRA were–finally–vigorously enforced and properly interpreted, it could well be the transformative law that its authors envisioned.”

To download the full report, click here.

To learn more about Public Agency Voter Registration, click here.

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