The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Tim Rusch,, 212-389-1407

New Study Debunks Flawed Heritage Foundation Report on Low Income Voter Registrations

Claims That Lower Public Agency Registration Caused by Welfare Reform Rather Than Poor Implementation Undermined


A new study published today by the nonpartisan policy center Demos
debunks a recent Heritage Foundation report claiming that welfare
reform is a significant factor in the decline in voter registrations
coming from public assistance agencies. The Heritage Foundation report
has been used to oppose efforts to promote full enforcement of the
Public Agency Voter Registration provision (section 7) of the National
Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The Demos study, authored by political scientists R. Michael Alvarez of
Caltech and Jonathan Nagler of New York University, concludes that the
research by the Heritage Center for Data Analysis was flawed in its
technical design, and thus provides no basis for the arguments against
vigorous federal and state enforcement of this important law.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), commonly referred
to as the "motor voter law", requires offices that provide public
assistance benefits such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, TANF (cash
assistance), and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program)
to provide voter registration services to clients. The number of voter
registration applications from public assistance agencies has declined
from over 2.6 million in 1995-1996 to only 550,000 in 2005-2006. Data
analysis and field investigations by Demos and its partners have shown
that states across the country are failing to properly comply with the
law's requirements.

In a 2008 Heritage Foundation report and testimony provided to
Congress, researchers David Muhlhausen and Patrick Tyrrell use
statistical analysis to conclude that fewer individuals are registering
to vote in public assistance agencies in recent years because of
declines in TANF caseloads. TANF (formerly AFDC) is only one of the
programs administered by such agencies. Specifically, Muhlhausen and
Tyrrell found that "a one percent decrease in AFDC/TANF participation
is associated with a 0.49 percent decline in voter registrations."

However, the new paper by Alvarez and Nagler found that Muhlhausen and
Tyrrell manipulate the data in questionable ways that overstates the
precision of their estimates and allows them to claim their results
have reached traditional levels of statistical significance when in
fact they largely do not. They also noted that Muhlhausen and
Tyrrell's model does not test competing hypotheses to explain the drop
in Public Assistance registrations, including the claim that states are
failing to properly implement the act.

"Muhlhausen and Tyrrell reach conclusions that are not supported by
their data analysis. We cannot say based on their report that the
decline in public assistance registrations can be explained by
declining AFDC/TANF caseloads. Nor can we draw any inference about
enforcement, or lack thereof, of NVRA provisions by the states," says
report co-author Jonathan Nagler.

"Alvarez and Nagler's report casts doubt on one of the most widespread
myths used to justify the massive declines in voter registrations from
public assistance agencies: that they are the result of declines in
TANF caseloads rather than states' noncompliance," said Scott
Novakowski, senior policy analyst at Demos. "It's not surprising that
the Heritage Foundation's findings are questionable given the
violations Demos and others have observed in states across the country
and the massive increases in registrations in states that have improved
their compliance with the law."

Demos has been engaged in an initiative since 2004 to improve state
compliance with the public assistance voter registration provisions of
the NVRA. The organizations have worked cooperatively with officials
in states such as North Carolina and Virginia to improve compliance and
have filed litigation to force compliance in several states including
Ohio and Missouri. In July 2008, the groups won a preliminary
injunction requiring Missouri's Department of Social Services to comply
with the law. Since then, the average number of registrations coming
from DSS offices has increased from an average of 650 registrations per
month to almost 12,000, an almost 1,800 percent increase.

For more information, visit

Demos is a think tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy. Through cutting-edge policy research, inspiring litigation, and deep relationships with grassroots organizations, Demos champions solutions that will create a democracy and economy rooted in racial equity.