This law would help protect US elections — so why won’t Republicans support it?
The heroic efforts of election officials (combined with the public’s patience and civic-mindedness) allowed the 2020 elections to pass the ultimate stress test: Despite disruptions caused by the pandemic, the U.S. held a secure election, with turnout a remarkable seven percentage points higher than in 2016.
But as we prepare for the 2022 elections, we can do even better.
According to a Census Bureau survey on the 2020 elections, tens of millions of citizens remain unregistered. Disturbingly, the survey also found that one in 20 registered citizens who didn’t vote reported that a problem with their voter registration prevented them from voting.
Given gridlock in the U.S. Senate, the future of federal reform looks bleak. But substantial improvements in voter registration are within reach if more states complied with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), a law that has been in effect for over 25 years.
Conservative activists have often expressed concern about outdated or erroneous records on registration lists, and continue to push for aggressive list cleaning in the name of election security. Because such procedures can mistakenly remove registrants and may disproportionately harm minority voters, liberal activists have questioned the motives behind these attempts.
Overlooked by both sides, however, is that the NVRA’s voter registration programs clean the rolls as they expand them.
Under the NVRA, which covers all but six states, when someone applies for a driver’s license, a state identification card or to participate in Health and Human Services programs, they must be offered the opportunity to register to vote. What is more, when a person updates their name or address with these agencies, that act should trigger procedures to update their voter registration record.
Conventional wisdom about elections sees a tradeoff between access and security, but that’s an oversimplification. NVRA-mandated registration efforts are essential to list accuracy, in large part because Americans move so often. The U.S. Census consistently finds that one in five adult citizens changes his or her residence during the two years between federal elections. That amounts to more than 50 million adult citizens with new addresses.
Properly implemented, the NVRA helps re-register movers and remove or correct their old registrations. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reports that 60 percent of valid voter registration applications between the 2018 and 2020 elections were updates to name, address or party. Simply put, as more people are offered registration, more updates are made.
Government registration programs may also correct other flaws in existing records that can create headaches for voters and administrators. First, applications at government agencies decreasingly rely on handwritten forms and the errors they can create. Second, NVRA registration programs are conducted alongside other government paperwork, which not only serves as a check on identification but also catches errors in names, addresses and birthdates.
Even though the NVRA has been on the books for years, many states still fail to fully comply. Indeed, in its 2014 final report, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration called the NVRA “the election statute most often ignored.” Over the past 20 years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and civil rights advocates have used litigation or other actions to enforce the NVRA’s registration programs in nearly half of the states.
Most states have brought their programs into compliance within several months and with remarkable results. Under these agreements, new registrations and updates from these agencies increases by tens or even hundreds of thousands per state per election cycle.
Securing improved NVRA compliance requires constant monitoring, as the DOJ and advocates have caught several states violating the Act more than once. As it has done previously, Congress should hold hearings on NVRA compliance and push for greater enforcement by the DOJ. State legislators should also monitor compliance and make registration at all NVRA agencies an opt-out procedure.
The EAC can do much more, too. The NVRA requires the Commission to assess implementation and provide recommendations for improved administration of the law. Despite this, the EAC, which has frequently offered detailed comments on list cleaning, has been silent on NVRA non-compliance. Considering the gravity of the situation, that must change.
Access and security can work hand-in-hand. Because a democracy needs its citizens not only to participate but also to believe in the fairness and integrity of elections, improving voter registration should be a high priority.
Liberal advocates have been active in encouraging NVRA compliance and enhancing government voter registration programs for some time. If their conservative counterparts are sincerely interested in the quality of registration lists, they should join them.
Douglas R. Hess has taught political science at Grinnell College, Smith College, Georgetown University and George Washington University. Since 1994, he has advised officials and civil rights advocates on implementing the National Voter Registration Act. @douglasrhess
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