New Report: States Well-Position to Have Automatic Voter Registration at Public Assistance Agencies

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New Report: States Well-Position to Have Automatic Voter Registration at Public Assistance Agencies

WASHINGTON - Public assistance agencies are generally well-positioned to help
modernize our voter registration process by moving toward automatic
registration of eligible persons who use agency services, according to a new report
released by Demos. In response to ongoing state-and federal-level
debate on the need to modernize our voter registration system, several
reform proposals have been advanced to automatically register eligible
citizens to vote through state agencies.

Almost 60 million
citizens remained unregistered to vote--and thus unable to
participate--in the 2008 election, one of the most talked-about
elections in recent history. At the same time, millions of registered
voters were prevented from voting in 2008 because of problems with our
voter registration system.

To address some of the core
ongoing problems with our voter registration system, many policymakers
and election experts are calling for it to be modernized in part by
using US government lists, such as those maintained by departments of
motor vehicles and public assistance agencies, to automatically
register all eligible citizens. Using public assistance databases to
help populate the voter rolls will help ensure that low-income
citizens, a historically under-represented group, will be registered
and able to cast a ballot on Election Day.

In order to better
understand public assistance databases and their ability to facilitate
automatic voter registration, Demos conducted a survey of public
assistance agencies in 41 states, and recently published the findings.

"A
central goal of any automatic voter registration proposal should be a
representative electorate in which all eligible citizens, including
those from historically underrepresented communities, are effectively
registered and able to cast a ballot on Election Day," said Scott Novakowski,
Demos senior policy analyst and co-author of the report. "State
databases of individuals receiving public assistance
benefits--including SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid--can be an important source for
registering low-income citizens-one of the most under-registered
segments of the population. While there are some minor issues that will
still need to be worked out, our research shows that public assistance
agencies are generally well-positioned to participate in a modernized
system of voter registration."

Demos conducted telephone
interviews with public assistance personnel in 41 out of 51 states
(including the District of Columbia). A subsequent follow-up survey was
received back from 29 of the 41 states. The respondents were primarily
state-level program and policy directors who were both familiar with
the benefits application process and the use of eligibility databases.

Key Findings:

  • Public assistance agencies are generally well-positioned for voter
    registration modernization. Much of the information necessary for
    registering individuals to vote is being captured, maintained, and
    updated in agency databases. Nevertheless, some states will be required
    to adjust their systems or alter their procedures in order to capture
    and seamlessly transmit the necessary data in the most voter-protective
    way.
  • The majority of the information required to register to vote-full
    name, date of birth, and Social Security number -is collected and
    stored for every household member receiving benefits in virtually all
    public assistance databases. Citizenship status must be provided by all
    applicants for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid and is a required field in the
    vast majority of databases we surveyed. While some states are able to
    upload a digital image of an applicant's signature, many others do not
    currently have this capability.
  • All public assistance records require entry of first and last name
    for every client in the database. However, not all states require a
    "formal legal name." Some states will instead allow the use of
    nicknames or aliases (e.g., Ted rather than Edward). Special attention
    will need to be paid in attempting to identify duplicates and to ensure
    that no eligible voter is kept off the rolls or prevented from voting
    because they prefer to use a nickname.
  • Some states reported that they do not require all clients to
    provide a residential address, allowing a mailing address to be used
    instead. This is a potential problem as all states require a
    residential address for voter registration. All states surveyed with
    the exception of two, however, have a field for residential addresses
    in their database, even if not required.
  • While some states use USPS-certified software to standardize and
    improve the accuracy of the addresses in their databases, others do
    not, potentially complicating the already difficult processes of
    eliminating duplicate registrations and maintaining accurate voter
    lists.

"We hope state and federal lawmakers will take action to modernize
our voter registration system, and will make use of the information
compiled by public agencies-which serve millions of Americans-to help
bring many more of our fellow citizens into the democratic process,"
said Brenda Wright, Director of Demos' Democracy Program.

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A multi-issue national organization, Demos combines research, policy development, and advocacy to influence public debates and catalyze change. We publish books, reports, and briefing papers that illuminate critical problems and advance innovative solutions; work at both the national and state level with advocates and policymakers to promote reforms; help to build the capacity and skills of key progressive constituencies; project our values into the media by promoting Demos Fellows and staff in print, broadcast, and Internet venues; and host public events that showcase new ideas and leading progressive voices.

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