To the extent that Americans believe voter registration is easy -- and polls show a large majority of Americans do -- it is because of the federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act.
The NVRA requires states to offer individuals an opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew their drivers licenses and when they apply for such public assistance services as Medicaid and food stamps. States must designate other government offices, such as libraries, as voter registration agencies.
But research by Project Vote and Demos, two national voting rights groups, showed that Missouri and other states are failing to offer voter registration at public assistance agencies, even though they provide voter registration services at motor vehicle offices.
When the NVRA's requirement went into effect in 1995-1996, Missouri helped 143,135 residents register at state public assistance agencies. By 2005-2006, that number was 15,568, a decline of 89 percent. Nationally, registrations have fallen by 79 percent, from 2.6 million to just 550,000, in the same period. The sharp declines in registrations at public assistance agencies cannot be accounted for by changes in the rates of registration, the use of public assistance programs or the eligibility of clients. Noncompliance with federal law does explain it.
To determine if Missouri's registration decline was the result of public agencies ignoring the law, the staff of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Missouri surveyed 14 public assistance offices. Only nine of them were able to produce a voter registration application upon request. None was providing voter registration applications to their clients as a matter of routine. Of the 56 clients interviewed, only four had received the required voter registration services at the offices they visited.
In other words, agency officials have not been following the federal law.
Congress enacted the NVRA in 1993 to overcome nearly 100 years of efforts by state politicians to use voter registration laws to make it harder for some groups to register to vote than others. In the South, white Democrats historically manipulated registration laws to keep blacks and poor whites off the rolls. In the North, rural Republicans used registration requirements to weaken urban Democrats.
More recently, barriers such as registration deadlines and the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the voter photo identification law in Indiana are only making it harder.
When the NVRA was introduced, one of its legislative sponsors said it would complete the work Congress began with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And the NVRA largely has worked.
Almost half of all voter registration applications submitted in this country originate at motor vehicle departments. But not everyone drives, which is why the provision applying to public assistance agencies was important to include in the law.
Partly as a result of states' failure to comply with the NVRA, the percentage of low-income Americans who are not registered to vote is twice that of affluent Americans. In Missouri, 34 percent of low-income residents are not registered to vote, compared with 19 percent of upper-income residents.
The long-term consequence of these kinds of disparities is that our communities lose the political power we need to solve pressing problems such as home foreclosures and the need for an earned-income tax credit at the state level.
This is why Missouri ACORN filed a federal lawsuit last week against the state's Department of Social Services, insisting that it abide by the NVRA, and why we are organizing a large-scale voter registration program to help 80,000 Missourians to vote.
Benita Jones is a St. Louis board member of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a national community-based activist group focusing on issues of special interest to the needs of low-income and moderate-income families.
Copyright © 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch L.L.C.