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Righting the Voting Income Gap

• November 08, 2011 • 8:00 AM

The “motor voter” law, an almost decade-old federal effort to encourage voter registration among Americans receiving public assistance, is bearing fruit.

Long-standing efforts to increase the number of low-income voters have been paying off.

Several voting rights groups point to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission that show an increase in new voter registrations coming from public-assistance agencies.

Since 1993, the National Voter Registration Act, known as the “Motor Voter Bill,” requires that voter registration be offered at DMV offices and public-assistance agencies. At the time of its passage, the law was heralded for empowering poor and working people, while detractors said it could lead to registering dead people.

“There are reasons why the wealthiest 1 percent of our population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and why the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider,” Rep. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is now a senator said at the time of the bill’s passage in the House. “And one of the reasons as to why we see these occurrences is that, to a very large degree, poor people and working people have very little impact on our nation’s political process. Wealthy people vote in large numbers and elect the candidates of their choice; poor and working people do not. Mr. Speaker, that motor-voter bill, simply stated, will make it easier for poor and working people to register to vote and to participate in the political process.”

Almost 20 years later, the fight to enforce the NVRA at public assistance offices has been the subject of intense legal pressure by activist groups over the past six years. In many of the states that saw an increase in recent years, nonprofit groups led by DēmosProject Vote, and The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had either sued or threatened to sue the state.

Ohio topped the list of eight states that had improved with legal pressure, along with Missouri, Tennessee, Colorado, New York, and North Carolina. States at the bottom of the list, which received the fewest voter-registration applications from public-assistance offices as a percentage of overall voters, include Georgia, New Jersey, and Texas.

In Ohio, the state’s Job and Family Services Department collected 246,000 voter registrations from November 2008 to November 2010, compared to a little over 42,000 in 2005-06. (A settlement in the lawsuit was reached in November 2009.)

“Voter registrations were not being provided in a meaningful or consistent way in Ohio,” said Lisa Danetz, senior counsel at Dēmos and co-lead counsel in a settled lawsuit against Ohio. “Their numbers started to go up when litigation was filed in 2006.

Before the lawsuits, Danetz said reports showed sporadic compliance. Field workers are required to assist, if need be, anyone filling out an application and submit the form to election officials. At several offices in Ohio, she said, investigators found registrations simply left in the corner or not being provided at all.

Matt McClellan, the spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, said he couldn’t comment on practices from past administrations. “We weren’t around at the time all this played out,” he said. “Obviously, Ohio, among many other states, was subject to a lawsuit on this. The previous administration worked out a settlement and worked with our public assistance agency to revamp how proactive they are. That’s where you’ve seen the increase.”

Registering people to vote at the same place they receive Medicaid or food vouchers undoubtedly attracts those with lower incomes, a segment of society increasingly less represented than the better-off. In 2008, 65.2 percent of people who made less than $25,000 were registered to vote in the U.S., compared to 56.1 percent in 2010. For those who make more than $100,000 per year, 84.6 percent were registered in 2008 and 74.8 percent in 2010.

When it comes to actual turnout, poor and minority voters saw dramatic increases in 2008. But in the 2010 mid-term election, minority and youth voters dropped out of the voting population at higher rates than whites, reversing much of the gains achieved two years earlier, based on an analysis by Project Vote.

Nicole Zeitler, director of Project Vote’s Public Agency Voter Registration Program, says there are still many states not fully compliant. Lawyers who have looked at past and present cases, however, have not found evidence that officials in any state were instructed not to follow the law, she said; “It was more a lack of leadership.

“If you just look at the numbers, it’s pretty obvious where the problems are,” Zeitler said. “We hope that the rest of the states that have fallen short will recognize they don’t have to wait to be sued over this. It’s a law that’s been on the books since 1993 and they just need to do it.”

States such as Delaware got the message. Election officials there adopted an electronic records system similar to ones used by grocery stores. Whenever clients enroll in a public-assistance program, field workers can have their information automatically sent to election officials to register to vote.

Efforts to expand the franchise are universally applauded among those who see such outreach as an invitation to pad voting rolls with an electorate that tends to vote Democratic. The voter registration efforts of groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, have become a synonym for alleged fraud in some tea party circles.

The conservative group Judicial Watch issued a report accusing Project Vote, an affiliate of ACORN, of unduly pressuring officials in Colorado. The group suggests the number of rejected applications, at 8 percent, was higher as a result. While the organization noted this four times the national average for registrations made at public-assistance offices, it was far less than the state’s 32.4 percent rejection rate for mail-in applications and 18.4 percent from DMV offices.

“Having duplications and invalid registrations are simply a by-product of offering more voter registrations to people,” Zeitler said. “The effort is to get the public assistance agencies to follow the law. That’s all that this is.”

Colorado Secretary of State spokesman Andrew Cole couldn’t say whether the state’s actions were a direct result of pressure from Project Vote. “Those policy changes were an attempt to comply with the law,” he said. “Now we’re doing everything we can to be in full compliance. Our office wants to see more people register and more people vote.”

Danetz says she sees the work of Dēmos and other groups as enabling people to participate in the political process who might not otherwise be able: “I’d like to think we’re expanding access to the political system. I think that stands on its own.”

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David Rosenfeld
David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.

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