Menus Subscribe Search

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.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From David Rosenfeld

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.