The democratic ideal is based on a vision of citizens from across the social and economic spectrum making their voices heard through political participation. True democracy breaks down when large groups of people are excluded from the process. Indeed, the slow movement toward ever greater inclusion of previously disenfranchised communities is one of the great struggles that defines the history of the United States.
Despite our successes in broadening access to the franchise over the past 200 years, troubling disparities in participation—including a large gap based on income—remain. In the historic presidential election of 2008, for example, voter turnout among citizens in households making $100,000 or more a year was 79 percent; of those living in households making less than $25,000 a year, only 54 percent voted.
In all states but one, voters must register before being allowed to cast a ballot—usually weeks and often up to a month before Election Day. Disparities in voter turnout can, at least in part, be traced to gaps in voter registration rates: Only 65.3 percent of low-income citizens were registered to vote in 2008, as compared to 84.6 percent of their more affluent peers.
But millions of unregistered low-income American citizens can be brought into the political process through effective implementation of an often-neglected provision of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Although the law is best known for requiring states to provide voter registration as part of driver’s license applications, Section 7 of the Act also requires states to provide voter registration services to those applying for or receiving public assistance benefits.
In particular, Section 7 requires state public assistance agencies—including those offices administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—to provide voter registration services to applicants and clients, including the distribution of a voter registration application with each application, recertification, renewal, or change of address related to benefits. It also requires that agency employees assist with completing registration forms and transmit them to election officials in a timely manner.
Maintaining compliance over the years has been a challenge: Voter registration applications from public assistance agencies fell 62 percent between the initial implementation in 1995-1996 and the latest reporting period, 2007-2008. However, states that have focused attention on effective implementation of this provision (whether voluntarily or following pressure from the Department of Justice or from organizations focused on improving compliance, including Demos, Project Vote, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law) have had remarkable success in registering more low-income voters. For example:
- In Missouri, the Department of Social Services saw a 1,600 percent rise in voter registration applications from low-income citizens, with 246,020 processed in the twenty-two months following a successful court action to improve compliance.
- Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services reported over 101,000 voter registration applications completed at its offices in just the first six months after a litigation settlement agreement, with a monthly average roughly ten times higher than it was prior to the filing of the lawsuit.
- In North Carolina, over 100,000 low-income citizens applied to register to vote through the state's public assistance agencies after the State Board of Elections voluntarily improved NVRA compliance, a six-fold increase over the state's previous performance.
- The number of voter registration applications from Virginia's public assistance agencies increased five-fold after Demos worked cooperatively with state officials to improve their procedures.
- Voter registrations from Illinois' Department of Human Services increased over 1,200 percent to an average of 6,162 per month under a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (compared to an average of only 446 in the preceding two years).
- After a court order in 2002, over one in six public assistance registrations in the nation came from Tennessee in the 2007-2008 reporting period.
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Based on these results, between 3.8 and 5 million voter registrations could be submitted at public assistance offices if all states were in compliance with this law.
How can you help ensure enforcement of this important civil rights law in your own community? Local groups can make site visits to public assistance offices to ascertain whether voter registration applications are available and provided to those seeking benefits, can advocate for and seek legislative oversight hearings, and can meet with local or state agency heads to demonstrate their concern about voter registration procedures at public assistance offices.
The Census Bureau has just reported that the percentage of Americans in poverty rose to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level in decades. As the poverty rate soars, the NVRA has never been more important for ensuring that low-income citizens have a voice in the democratic decisions that affect us all.
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