Silencing the Poor: The Neglect of the National Voter Registration Act

Scott Novakowski, a senior policy analyst for Demos, submitted this post as a guest blogger for The Hill.

As the nation is preparing for the 2008 presidential election, a recent report by Demos and Project Vote — two non-partisan voting rights organizations — reveals that states across the nation are failing to register low-income voters in public assistance agencies as required by the National Voter Registration Act. Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007 documents the dramatic national decline in voter registration applications from public assistance agencies since initial implementation of the law in 1995. Statistical analysis and field investigations confirm that this drop is largely due to states’ failure to comply with the law.

Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 to “increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal office.

Unfortunately registrations from public assistance agencies have declined by 79 percent since initial implementation of the law, from over 2.5 million registrations in 1995-1996 to only 540,000 in 2005-2006. This decline occurred despite the fact that average caseloads for programs such as Food Stamps have increased during this time and 13 million low-income citizens remained unregistered in 2006. Furthermore, recent field investigations and surveys of clients outside public assistance agencies on over a half-dozen states found numerous instances where voter registration was not being offered as required by the NVRA. At the same time, there remains a striking income gap in registration rates between the rich and the poor: In 2006, only 60 percent of citizens in households making less than $25,000 a year were registered to vote compared to 80 percent of those in households making over $100,000.

Fortunately, experience indicates that when state election and public assistance officials take steps to improve their Section 7 voter registration programs, the number of low-income citizens registering to vote in these offices increases dramatically. For example, after working with Demos and our partners, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections advised agencies of their responsibilities, identified NVRA coordinators in each agency office, enhanced the training program, and instituted a system for tracking and monitoring agency compliance. As a result, public assistance agencies experienced a five-fold increase in the average number of clients completing voter applications each month — from 484 to 2,529. Between January and August 2007, the state’s agencies registered over 20,000 low-income citizens — more than these agencies registered in the preceding two years combined. States such as Iowa and Tennessee have also seen tremendous gains in agency registrations after improving their procedures.

State election and public assistance officials are encouraged to follow the lead of North Carolina and Iowa and voluntarily commit to adopting “best practices

Tags Caging Demos Elections Government Help America Vote Act National Voter Registration Act Person Career Politics Project Vote Social Issues Sociology Voter registration

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