Civil Rights

Celebrate the National Voter Registration Act by building a more inclusive democracy

Twenty-five years ago today, our democracy took a major step forward with the enactment of the bipartisan National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which opened up the voter registration process to Americans left out of the electorate. Yet millions of eligible voters remain unregistered. To fulfill the promise of the NVRA, states must do much more to ensure all Americans have a voice in our democracy.

Congress passed the NVRA with the explicit purpose of increasing the number of eligible citizens who register and vote. The act sought to shift the burden of registration from individuals to government. Because of the NVRA, if you apply for a driver's license, file for public benefits, seek disability-related services, or go to a military recruitment office, you must be provided the opportunity to register to vote. You can use a simplified national registration form and register by mail. And thanks to the NVRA, you cannot be purged from the rolls simply for not voting in the past.

The law wasn't always this way. The United States has a long history of denying disfavored groups access to the ballot. After Reconstruction, Southern whites used onerous voter registration requirements alongside poll taxes, literacy tests and white primaries to keep African Americans from the polls. Local registrars retained discretion to admit or remove people from the rolls, which they exercised to disenfranchise black people and to relax the rules for white people. In the North, voter registration was used to prevent immigrants and working-class people from voting.

 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated many forms of racial vote suppression and led to an almost immediate rise in black registration and voting. But unnecessary registration requirements continued to depress participation. In many states, people had to appear in person at the registrar's office, often a single location for an entire county that was open only limited hours. People who could not travel long distances or miss work were locked out of the democratic process.

As a result, registration remained far below the level to which a democracy should aspire. As of 1992, just before the NVRA was passed, over 30 percent of those eligible were unregistered. The impact was decidedly unequal. While registration rates were over 80 percent for the wealthiest fifth of Americans, they were a dismal 43.5 percent for the poorest fifth.

The NVRA was a major advance, but the statute's promise has never been fully realized because states have not fully complied with its requirements. Tens of millions of eligible citizens remain unregistered today.

Barriers to registration hit vulnerable populations hardest. Wage workers, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency are less likely to be registered. People of color and low-income individuals move more frequently and get taken off the rolls. These are populations that would be registered without delay if all states consistently provided registration services at the agencies with which they already interact.

The public policy organization Dēmos has worked collaboratively with states and, when necessary, sued to get them to abide by the statute. Last month, for example, the organization sued Missouri for refusing to update voter registration records when people changed their address on their driver's license, as required by the NVRA. Dēmos and its partners have won improvements in Alabama, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and other states over the years. It is also litigating to stop the growing problem of unlawful voter purges - including in Ohio, in a case that is pending before the Supreme Court.

It goes without saying that states should voluntarily comply with their federal voter registration obligations. They can also adopt inclusive modern practices such as automatic voter registration (AVR) for eligible citizens who interact with state agencies unless they opt out, early voting and election-day registration, and pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds so they are ready to vote when they turn 18.

Washington state enacted a slate of these reforms in March. Twelve states and the District of Columbia now have a form of AVR. In Oregon, the adoption of AVR in 2016 led to greater voter diversity based on race, age and income, and increased voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points. More states should follow suit.

And states can do still more to make it easier to exercise the fundamental right to vote. Election officials should attend naturalization ceremonies to register new citizens, who are currently registered at 61.7 percent compared to 71.2 percent for natural-born citizens. States should designate high schools, public libraries and state health exchanges as voter registration sites. They should proactively register returning citizens as they complete their prison, parole or probation terms. And the 13 states that have not yet adopted online voter registration should do so. Americans conduct banking and book airline flights on smartphones; there's no reason we shouldn't be able to opt into the electoral process this way as well.

Our country is strongest when every voice can be heard - when every eligible citizen can cast a ballot and have it counted. Twenty-five years after the NVRA, we're still striving for this ideal. States should celebrate this anniversary by renewing their commitment to free, fair and inclusive elections where we all have a say in our democracy.

Chiraag Bains is the director of legal strategies at Dēmos. Previously, he served as senior counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @chiraagbains.

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