Approaching the Goal of Universal Enfranchisement
The National Voter Registration Act
(commonly referred to as "motor voter," or, "NVRA") marks an historic
advance in the struggle to win full enfranchisement of the poor and minorities in the
United States. If implemented fairly and completely, the law signed by President Bill
Clinton in May 1993 will raise national voter registration from its current level of 63%
to 95%. Already, millions have signed up to vote, and in May 1995 Human SERVE estimated
that 20 million new voters will be on the rolls by the 1996 elections.
Higher registration is critical to achieving higher voter turnout. Once registered, Americans vote. In the 1992 presidential election, for instance, 90% of registered voters cast ballots -- a level that compares favorably with other democratic countries. Conventional wisdom blames the traditionally low turnout of eligible voters on voter apathy. In fact, the chief explanation given by nonvoters is that they are not registered.
Provisions of the NVRA
The NVRA builds upon the gains made by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dismantled many government-sponsored barriers to voter registration. The NVRA embodies the principle that government has an affirmative obligation to enroll the eligible electorate. Doing so, it brings the United States into line with practices in most other Western Democracies. In Canada, for example, the government completes a national canvass before each election.
The NVRA requires state agencies to register citizens to vote when they get drivers' licenses (hence "motor voter"), Food Stamps, Medicaid, AFDC and WIC as well as at agencies that provide services to people with disabilities. States also must designate additional offices to provide voter registration services.
Additional provisions of the law require states to accept a national mail-in voter registration form and to establish guidelines for maintaining the accuracy of voter registration rolls -- most notably prohibiting states from removing registrants from the rolls for not voting.
Technically, the NVRA only applies to federal elections. But if states only implemented the NVRA for federal elections, they would create costly and cumbersome dual registration systems. Therefore, most states passed legislation to amend state voter registration procedures for all elections by the January 1995 deadline. Three states (Arkansas, Vermont and Virginia) are allowed extra time because of state constitutional conflicts, and four others are exempt from implementing the law, either because they have election day registration systems (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming) or because they do not have voter registration at all (North Dakota).
Of the 43 states required to do so, 32 states and the District of Columbia had implemented the NVRA by the end of April 1995. And the results have been astounding. In the first quarter of 1995, two million new voters were registered nationwide. This rate of registration is unprecedented. Georgia, for example, registered 183,086 voters in three months, as compared with 85,000 in all of last year. According to Secretary of State Max Cleland, Georgia is on track to register one million new voters by the 1996 presidential election. In Florida, 408,240 people registered in the first quarter. If these initial results are any indication, motor voter is a resounding success.
Implementation May Be Thwarted Despite Success
Although the NVRA has proven to be a great opportunity to expand political participation, some politicians still see it simply as a threat. The lines have been drawn for a partisan battle.
Elected officials across the board fear changing the composition of the electorate that put them in office, but the attacks on motor voter have come almost exclusively from members of the Republican party. Many Republicans fear that new registrants will tend to vote Democratic. Some NVRA opponents have introduced bills to repeal the NVRA outright, others have refused to implement the NVRA in their states, and still others created plans to implement the law in minimal, ineffective ways.
On the first day of the 104th Congress, four Republicans introduced bills that would block implementation of motor voter: Sen. Coverdell (GA) introduced S. 91 to block implementation unless Federal funds are made available; Rep. Livingston (LA) and Manzullo (IL), each introduced separate bills (H.R. 60 and H.R. 326) to make the NVRA "voluntary;" and Rep. Stump (AZ) introduced H.R. 370 to repeal the NVRA. Rep. Linder (GA) later introduced H.R. 736, companion legislation to the Coverdell bill, and Sen. McConnell (KY) later introduced S. 218, another repeal effort.
States Blocking Implementation
Three of the largest and most populous states -- California, Illinois and Pennsylvania -- openly declared their intention to block implementation of the NVRA. Lawsuits were filed against all three to force compliance, and Federal courts have ruled, in all three cases, against the states. Pennsylvania dropped its challenge after losing, as did Illinois after losing on appeal. California also lost its first appeal, while lawsuits filed to force compliance in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina have not yet been resolved. In addition, Kansas is resisting implementation, and civil rights attorneys are considering legal action.
Why do politicians resist implementing the NVRA? One argument is the general outcry against "unfunded federal mandates" that is sweeping this country. Although Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to regulate the time and place of federal elections, some states are treating motor voter as a "states rights" issue. Grossly overestimating the cost of implementation, California's Governor Pete Wilson has refused to implement the NVRA without federal funds. He bases his resistance on a suspiciously high estimated cost of $35 million annually -- six times what California's former Secretary of State estimated.
In South Carolina, former Governor Carroll Campbell vetoed enabling legislation as he declared his opposition to appropriating $570,000 for implementation -- a figure which represents just 0.005% of the state budget appropriations for 1995. His successor, David Beasley, has continued his resistance.
Another argument used against the NVRA is that it will increase voter fraud, particularly by illegal immigrants. Conceptually, this argument is flawed: imagine the illegal immigrant who goes into a drivers' licensing agency filled with state officials, presents identification (which, in many states, must include a birth certificate or other similarly authoritative proof of birth date), poses for a photograph and signs a voter registration form under penalty of perjury. This scenario is highly improbable.
In addition, extensive studies assessing registration by mail have found no increase in fraud. Further, the NVRA increases federal criminal penalties for fraudulent voter registration.
The criticisms of the NVRA are the real fraud. They originate not from the specter of increased cost or fraud, but from fear. It is no coincidence that attempts to undermine the NVRA arrived in concert with the Contract with America. The NVRA would empower the very people whose safety net Congress proposes to shred. Legislators fear that registering millions of people in Food Stamps, AFDC, Medicaid and WIC offices just as they plan to slash these programs could produce a dangerous upsurge of voting by irate, poor and minority people in 1996.
Even the states that are complying with the new law have developed highly efficient ways to register automobile drivers, who tend to be more affluent, while making less effort to enfranchise poorer non-drivers, who are likely to have low voter registration levels. Moreover, some states, many of them in the South, actually have used the NVRA as an opportunity to erect new barriers to voting.
In drivers' licensing agencies, voter registration is integrated into the application in a single combined process. This makes for a streamlined and efficient process and ensures that the maximum number of people will apply to register to vote. The District of Columbia motor voter program illustrates the importance of combined forms: when its Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ran out of combined forms and had to use separate voter registration forms, the registration rate dropped by over 50%.
But as simple and efficient as combined forms are, all but three states -- New York, Oregon and Kentucky -- use separate voter registration forms in public assistance agencies. Separate forms mean lower voter registration rates at such agencies than at DMVs. Unfortunately, public assistance agencies serve those populations most in need of voter registration services.
The weak program design in public assistance agencies is not only unacceptable because it is less effective; it is also discriminatory. Nationally, disproportionately few minorities possess drivers' licenses, while a far higher percentage of minorities receive public assistance than whites. Therefore, implementing an inferior program in the public assistance agencies will have a discriminatory impact on minority enfranchisement and may violate the Voting Rights Act.
Although many states claim that combined forms would cost too much, they in fact save money. By streamlining the process, combined forms save time, reduce agency expenses and register more voters.
The NVRA also requires states to offer voter registration in other agencies. Only a very few states, however, designated agencies that reach out to large numbers of the disenfranchised. To their credit, North Carolina and Missouri offer voter registration at unemployment offices. But for the most part, states designated such offices as libraries or marriage license bureaus.
The NVRA makes another profound change to voter registration systems around the country: the introduction of mail-in voter registration. While half of the states already allowed mail-in voter registration by 1995, the rest had archaic systems that required in-person registration, often at inconvenient locations and during restricted hours. Many states, too, had notary or witness requirements, or requested proof of identification when registering.
As of January 11995, citizens can register simply by completing a mail-in form and sending it in. Most states have designed new mail-in forms, and all covered states are required to accept federal mail-in forms. The good news is that most states have designed forms that are uncluttered and easy to understand. The bad news is that other states have created elaborate new procedures. The law in Tennessee, for example, requires people who register to vote by mail to provide identification at the polls. This will have a disparate impact on poor people and minorities, who are far less likely to possess drivers' licenses or other commonly required forms of identification.
The dedication and hard work of advocates and litigators across this country has made a tremendous impact on the process of implementing the NVRA. Now that the deadline for implementation has passed, many groups have shifted gears to develop joint advocacy / litigation strategies to force resistant states into compliance. Lawsuits have been filed in nine states that failed to implement the NVRA, and more legal action will be necessary to eliminate discriminatory implementation plans in other states.
Human SERVE is developing a nationwide monitoring project to determine the progress of states in implementing the NVRA. With the information gathered through the monitoring project, advocates can work closely with election officials and agency administrators in the states to ensure that the most effective programs are being implemented.
As the 1996 elections draw near, opponents of the NVRA who understand its potential can be expected to step-up delaying tactics. To counteract this, the voting rights community must be increasingly vigilant and work together to ensure that this historic new law is not thwarted.
Rebekah Evenson is Program Associate at Human SERVE, the only national organization dedicated solely to ensuring full and fair implementation of the National Voter Registration Act. This article is adapted from an article originally published in the Southern Regional Council's Voting Rights Review. For more information, call Human Serve at (212) 854-4053, or write to 622 West 113th Street, Suite 410, New York, New York, 10025.
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