Shifting the Focus to Improving Voter Registration Access, Not Inhibiting It

In a democracy that can only boast that 71 percent of its citizens are registered and able to exercise their civic duty in any given election, access to the franchise is crucial.  For decades, millions of citizens have relied on either voter registration drives or government agencies to help them get on the voter rolls. Today, however, private voter registration drives are under attack, while some states are ignoring their responsibilities to reach unregistered citizens. If community-based drives are prevented from helping Americans get registered, and government agencies won’t help them, then who will?

In several states, elected officials and partisan groups are intent on stifling the proven effectiveness of voter registration drives run by private individuals and organizations. Despite the partisan-spun “scandals” that come with third-party voter registration drives, they are undeniably effective in reaching large portions of the population.

“According to the 2008 CPS, nearly 9 million citizens [or 8 percent] reported having registered ‘at a voter registration drive,’” wrote Doug Hess and Jody Herman in Project Vote report, Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate. “This likely seriously undercounts the total impact of voter registration drives, however, as 9.4 million citizens (another 8 percent) reported that they registered ‘at a school, hospital, or on campus’—all locations where voter registration drives are often conducted by civic organizations and student groups.”

Another 9.7 million registered to vote through mail-in voter registration applications, many of whom presumably received these applications from voter drives or organizations that distributed the forms through the postal or electronic mail.

Voter registration drives are protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment, as well as provisions under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (which directly protects and encourages community-run voter registration drives as the law’s primary purpose is to ensure more citizens are registered to vote). Yet lawmakers and election officials in states like Nevada are looking to regulate and criminalize voter registration drives so thoroughly, that they can create a “chilling effect on community-based voter registration, causing many organizations to curtail or cease their voter registration efforts.”

Other states are introducing regressive bills to halt otherwise effective means of registering voters. The opportunity to register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time, or Election Day Registration, is available in nine states, most of which exhibit above-average voter participation rates.  Republican-backed efforts to do away with EDR are reportedly underway in Montana, New Hampshire, andWisconsin.

Perhaps the most noncontroversial and effective way to reach large numbers of historically underrepresented, low-income citizens lies in Section 7 of the NVRA, but nationwide compliance with this law is inconsistent.  The NVRA requires public assistance agencies that provide services to low-income residents to offer voter registration services to their clients. However, in states like Louisiana, voter registration cards collected at these agencies have declined by as much as 88 percent since implementation in 1995.

On Wednesday, Project Vote, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson put Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler on notice for voting rights violations in the state.

The groups called on Schedler, the Dept. of Children and Family Services, and Dept. of Health and Hospitals, to take corrective action necessary to bring the state into compliance with the NVRA, citing evidence of the state denying numerous low-income residents of the opportunity to register to vote.

“In the past several years, lawsuits filed by Project Vote and other groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results,” according to the press release. “For example, applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008. More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there in the end of 2009.”

Voter registration is the first, key step to getting involved in the democratic process. Whether provided by community-based groups or existing state and federal laws, lawmakers should focus on improving and fostering these methods of voter registration, not obstructing or ignoring them. Every eligible citizen should have equal access to the franchise in this country, and when millions rely on voter registration drives, government agency officials, and poll clerks on Election Day to provide that opportunity, we may want to rethink our approach to “fixing” the election system.

Court Rules that New Mexico is in Violation of Federal Voter Registration Law

Voting rights groups scored a major victory in their efforts to bring the State of New Mexico into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) when a judge ruled that the state Human Services Division is violating the NVRA through their policy of only offering the opportunity to register to vote to clients who explicitly request to do so.

Yesterday’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of voting rights groups against New Mexico’s Human Services Division (HSD) and Secretary of State Mary Herrera, which cited clear evidence that New Mexico public assistance offices are violating their federally mandated responsibility to offer tens of thousands of New Mexicans each year the opportunity to register to vote. The plaintiff is represented by voting rights groups Project Vote, Dēmos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), as well as by the law firm of DLA Piper U.S.

Section 7 of the NVRA requires that public assistance agencies give clients a voter registration application with every application for benefits, recertification, and change of address. New Mexico policy, however, has been to give voter registration application forms to only those clients who explicitly request them, a practice that plaintiff maintains is in violation of the NVRA.

Yesterday, United States District Judge Judith Herrera agreed and the court held that “Section 7 does not make the provision of a voter registration application contingent upon an affirmative request,” meaning that the State’s current policy is a violation of the law.

“This is a huge victory for NVRA enforcement, not just in New Mexico, but all across the country,” said Project Vote’s Director of Public Agency Voter Registration, Nicole Zeitler. “Agencies must give out a voter registration application form to everyone who applies for benefits, recertifies, or changes address. Federal law requires it, the Department of Justice has confirmed it, and now the federal courts are ordering it.”

The voting rights groups are hailing this as the first legal ruling on the issue of whether clients must “opt in” to be offered the opportunity to register to vote. “This should be a wake-up call to other states whose agencies are still refusing to give out voter registration applications unless the client specifically asks for it,” says Zeitler.

The voting rights advocates won on all fronts in yesterday’s ruling. Not only did the court grant plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, but it also denied both HSD’s and the Secretary of State’s motions for summary judgment. In denying HSD’s motion, the court pointed to plaintiff’s allegations of years of widespread non-compliance, noting that “the Court cannot say as a matter of law that HSD has demonstrated that it has the tools in place to be compliant in the future without an injunction and Court monitoring.”

“The Court hit on the exact reasons why we brought this case in the first place,” says Robert Kengle, Acting Co-Director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “New Mexico’s public assistance offices have been out of compliance with the NVRA for years, and nothing short of comprehensive reform, ordered and monitored by the court, will repair the damage that has been done to the voting rights of low-income New Mexicans.”

In another important decision, the District Court rejected Secretary of State Herrera’s claim that her office is not responsible for ensuring compliance with the NVRA in New Mexico. Relying on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Harkless v. Brunneran NVRA lawsuit filed by the same voting rights groups in Ohio, Judge Herrera agreed with the Sixth Circuit that “each state’s chief election official is responsible for NVRA state compliance,” and that therefore “Defendant Herrera has the obligation to prescribe the actions that the state, including HSD offices, must take to comply with Section 7.”

 

“Courts now have repeatedly confirmed that state election officials must take responsibility for ensuring that low-income voters receive the voter registration opportunities required by federal law,” said Demos’ Counsel Allegra Chapman. “This decision should encourage chief election officials throughout the country to examine agency practices on voter registration, and take corrective action when needed.”

The coalition of voting rights groups has been advocating for enforcement of the NVRA in several states, and settled a related claim against New Mexico’s Motor Vehicles Division in July of this year. Following the groups’ successful lawsuit in Missouri in 2008, voter registration applications submitted at the state’s public assistance offices skyrocketed from fewer than 8,000 a year to more than 130,000 a year. More than 200,000 clients have applied to become registered voters in Ohio after a similar lawsuit was settled in that state last year.

The groups estimate that proper implementation nationwide of the NVRA’s public assistance provisions could result in 2-3 million additional registrations per year.

 

LWV Joins Forces to Bring Voter Registration Opportunities to Low-Income Arizonans

Earlier this year, the League of Women Voters and Project Vote teamed up to find that, despite intervention from the Justice Department in 2008, the state Department of Economic Security (DES) was still not doing everything it should to follow the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). In response to our findings, we gathered a coalition of support in hopes of urging the state to continue taking the necessary steps to increase their levels of compliance with a law that has helped many underrepresented, low-income Arizonan communities cast their vote of Election Day.

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LWV Joins Forces to Bring Voter Registration Opportunities to Low-Income Arizonans

Earlier this year, the League of Women Voters and Project Vote teamed up to find that, despite intervention from the Justice Department in 2008, the state Department of Economic Security (DES) was still not doing everything it should to follow the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). In response to our findings, we gathered a coalition of support in hopes of urging the state to continue taking the necessary steps to increase their levels of compliance with a law that has helped many underrepresented, low-income Arizonan communities cast their vote of Election Day.

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Celebrating Women’s Suffrage Brings Another Election Issue to Light

Next week marks the 90th anniversary of the American woman’s right to vote. Since the passage of the 19th amendment, women have generally been more likely to turn out to vote than men. However there is one area of federal election law that some states undermine, which disproportionately disadvantages  women, particularly low income citizens and minorities.

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