Complying with the NVRA: States Learn that Voter Registration through Public Agencies Works

Cross-Posted to Project Vote's blog,Voting Matters

After 15 years of declining compliance, several states are being brought into line with the National Voter Registration Act, a key federal election law that could help hundreds of thousands of citizens register to vote every year. Though some states are coming around due to lawsuits filed by voting rights organizations, others are voluntarily beginning to adhere to the NVRA. This week Project Vote released two new publications that explain what states are doing wrong and offer best practices for improvement.

The NVRA is commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law because of its provision that requires motor vehicle license offices to provide voter registration services. However, an equally important (though lesser known, and more poorly implemented) section of the law... requires state public assistance agencies to offer voter registration with every initial and renewal application for public benefits, as well as every address change.

"These provisions were included specifically to reach populations that are not only historically underrepresented in the electorate, but who are also less likely to be reached by other registration opportunities."

However, many states have failed to consistently provide voter registration services to citizens who apply for public assistance or disability services, continuing the disparity in registration rates between low and upper income Americans. Between 1995 and 2006, voter registration through public assistance agencies declined by 79 percent, from three million collected nationwide between 1995 and 1996 to just over 500,000 10 years later.

Over the years, Project Vote and its partners have worked with states to bring them to compliance with the law, including Ohio, Missouri, and Colorado. For example, after these partners brought a lawsuit against the state, Missouri public agencies went from collecting fewer than 8,000 applications a year to averaging over 10,000 per month. (Project Vote has updated a case study explaining how this remarkable success was achieved.) And agencies in the state of Ohio—after parties agreed to settle a similar case in November 2009—collected nearly 50,000 voter registration applications in just the first three months of 2010.)

But, ideally, states won’t wait to be sued to turn around their public agency programs.  Colorado, for example, recently reported a 277 percent increase in voter registration activity since 2007. While the state continues to progress in its NVRA compliance efforts, it demonstrates how effective states can be in providing voter registration access to citizens.

"Prior to the implementation of Colorado’s renewed NVRA compliance plan implemented in 2008, emphasis on NVRA compliance was not maintained at a desirable level by the State of Colorado," according to a new report from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. "Colorado has made significant strides in improving compliance over the past two years."

"In drafting the plan, the Secretary of State addressed the need for improved communication and coordination with public assistance agencies and the issuance of advice to local agencies regarding their specific duties under the NVRA.The plan also called for the development of training materials and creation of a tracking system to record voter registrations statistics bi-monthly with a web-based survey program."

The new Project Vote policy paper, "Voter Registration Services at Public Assistance Agencies: Complying with Federal Law" outlines the steps that agency officials, election officials, and legislators can take to improve voter registration access under the NVRA.

Modern technology may also bring voter registration, particularly public agency registration, to the 21st century.  Colorado’s newly enacted online voter registration law, for example, is expected to help streamline and improve voter registration activities at government agencies.

"The Secretary of State’s office anticipates partnering with Colorado’s public assistance agencies to explore the viability of integrating online voter registration technology into each agency’s current software system," according to the secretary’s report.

Despite cited budgetary challenges, "the Secretary of State’s office is committed to continuing to enhance voter registration opportunities for citizens applying for public assistance," proving other states can easily follow suit.

"Project Vote congratulates in particular the Office of the Secretary of State in Colorado for providing the leadership, training, and performance monitoring necessary to ensure that the NVRA is implemented fairly and effectively," said Project Vote election counsel, Teresa James.

Tags: election reform, National Voter Registration Act, public assistance, Project Vote, Colorado, Missouri, Voting Rights (all tags)

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