One of the long-standing cornerstones of GOP election strategy is the suppression of African American votes, accomplished in recent years through a host of techniques, including felon disenfranchisement laws, “caging” and voter i.d. requirements. But it turns out that one of the more effective tools used to reduce the votes of lower-income Black voters in the 21st century is the refusal of the Civil Rights Division of the Dept of Justice to enforce Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires public assistance agencies to offer voter registration to clients,
According to a report by Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, groups that have been working for better enforcement of the NVRA:
…many states continue to ignore the requirement (Section 7 of the NVRA) that public assistance agencies offer voter registration to clients, while enforcement of the law by the Department of Justice has been virtually non-existent…The registration data published by the EAC are disturbing. Between initial implementation of the law in 1995-1996 and 2005-2006, the EAC’s [Election Assistance Commission] numbers indicate an 80 percent nationwide decrease in voter registrations from public assistance agencies. Nine states reported decreases of 90 percent or more. States only registered half as many voters in public assistance agencies in 2005-2006 as they did as recently as 2003-2004…It also appears that states are making little effort to train public assistance caseworkers in conducting voter registration. The EAC report indicates that only six states provide training at least every two years to all voter registration agencies.
…The continuing decline in public assistance registrations suggests that not only are states continuing to disregard their duty to offer voter registration at public assistance agencies, but also that the federal agency responsible for enforcement–the highly politicized Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice–is ignoring its responsibility to do so.
How significant is the NVRA in securing the participation of low-income voters? According the the report,
In the last few years, DOJ has pursued only one lawsuit–in Tennessee–to bring a state into compliance with Section 7. As a testament to what DOJ oversight can accomplish, Tennessee accounted for almost a quarter of the nation’s public assistance voter registrations in 2005-2006…Unfortunately, DOJ has continued to ignore the evidence of Section 7 violations in almost all other states, and instead has pursued policies to remove voters from the voter rolls.
Of course, it is not only African Americans who are disproportionately affected by lax enforcement of the NVRA, but low-income Hispanics, Whites and all people who receive public assistance. Only 59 percent of citizens in households earning less than $15,000 registered to vote, compared to 85 percent in households earning over $75,000.
One wonders how many more Democrats might have been elected in ’06, if the NVRA had been fully-enforced. While the Republican-controlled Civil Rights Division of the DOJ will most likely continue to poorly enforce Section 7 of the NVRA, state and local Democratic groups should organize campaigns to force local public assistance agencies to meet their obligations to offer voter registration opportunities.