Valuing The Votes Of The Poor
May 24, 2007
Scott Novakowski is a policy analyst at Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action. Dēmos is a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization committed to building an America that achieves its highest democratic ideals. This report can be found here.
Thousands of low-income North Carolinians are now finding it much easier to register to vote, thanks to the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ efforts to ensure the state is in full compliance with an often-neglected provision of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
Congress passed the NVRA in 1993 in order to increase the number of citizens who register to vote and to protect the integrity of our electoral system. Recognizing that the law’s provision requiring voter registration in motor vehicle departments would fail to adequately reach low-income citizens, Congress also required voter registration to be offered at public assistance agencies. Such agencies are well suited to perform this function since they are in regular contact with millions of low-income citizens and often have client empowerment as a central part of their mission.
While most states have established programs to register voters at motor vehicle departments, many have neglected to implement the public assistance registration provisions of the law—also known as Section 7 of the NVRA. A report by the NVRA Implementation Project—a joint effort of Demos, Project Vote, ACORN—showed that public assistance voter registrations had declined by 59 percent between 1995-1996 and 2003-2004. This decline occurred while registrations from all other sources increased by over 24 percent. Site checks at public assistance agencies across the country revealed significant lapses in the voter registration program. Non-compliance results in an unacceptable income gap in registration rates: in 2004, 59 percent of citizens in households making less than $15,000 a year were registered to vote versus 85 percent of those in households making $75,000 or more a year.
Over the past two years, the NVRA Implementation Project has worked with states across the country to improve compliance with the public assistance provisions of the NVRA. Most recently, surveys conducted outside public assistance agencies in North Carolina indicated serious non-compliance with the law. Statistical evidence underscored the problem. Data submitted by North Carolina to the federal agencies indicated a 73.5 percent decline in public assistance registrations in the state between 1995-1996 and 2003-2004. In 2005, public assistance offices in each of 35 counties registered fewer than 10 clients and public assistance offices in 11 of those 35 counties did not register a single client.
When the project—in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—notified Gary Bartlett, Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, of the state’s compliance problem, he expressed concern and acted immediately, developing and rolling out a 10-point plan to bring the state into compliance with the law.
While data collection is still in its preliminary stages, the initial results from the local agencies are remarkable (and are further outlined in a new report published by Demos this month):
A healthy democracy is dependent upon broad participation across all segments of society. North Carolina is providing bold leadership in NVRA Section 7 implementation. As a result, thousands of low-income citizens will be drawn into the democratic process. Other states should follow North Carolina’s lead and make this important law a priority. Their citizens deserve no less.