Michael McDunnah’s post, “New Project Vote Report Evaluates Fifteen Years of the NVRA” at Open Left flags an important study, which could have have a significant impact on the Democrats’ prospects in upcoming elections. McDunnah discusses the just-released Project Vote Study “The NVRA at Fifteen: A Report to Congress,” written by Estelle Rogers. The conclusions of the study about National Voter Registration Act ought to alert Democrats and the Administration to an impending threat and an opportunity.
The NVRA should be enforced as a critical priority for American democracy, regardless of partisan concerns. For Democrats, however, the threat is that continued lax enforcement of the NVRA could help hand the Republicans an early comeback. Conversely, the opportunity for Democrats is that full enforcement of the NVRA could help secure Democratic majorities at the federal state and local levels for years to come.
Lax enforcement of the NVRA has undermined the integrity of our elections for all voters, regardless of their party preference. McDunnah explains:
During the first two years of its implementation, the NVRA contributed to one of the largest expansions of the voter rolls in American history. But many states have resisted or rejected the mandates of the NVRA since its passage, often challenging them in court, while others have been allowed to ignore their responsibilities due to lax enforcement by the Department of Justice. As a result, fifteen years after the passage of the NVRA, voter registration was once again cited frequently as THE PROBLEM marring the 2008 election. Tremendous disparities in the electorate still remain, controversies rage across the country over voter registration and list maintenance issues, and some seven million Americans-according to the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey-either attempted unsuccessfully to vote or were discouraged from voting by administrative barriers. It is clear that many problems the NVRA sought to address remain uncured, and its full promise remains unfulfilled.
What’s behind the failure of enforcement of the Act? McDunnah quotes voting rights scholar Frances Fox Piven in her forward to the study:
…The reform of American registration procedures has met widespread resistance, some of it attributable no doubt to bureaucratic inertia, and some of it perhaps politically motivated.”
Rogers, via McDunnah, breaks down the failure into four key elements:
“It is important to assess what has been accomplished and suggest what might be done to achieve the level of civic participation envisioned by the statute’s drafters in 1993,” Rogers says. The NVRA at Fifteen is the first in-depth evaluation of how four major provisions of the NVRA have-and more importantly haven’t-been successfully implemented: the “motor voter” program, establishing voter registration through motor vehicle offices (Section 5 of the NVRA); the creation of a simple, universally accepted mail-in registration form (Section 6); voter registration through public assistance agencies serving low-income families and people with disabilities (Section 7); and the regulation of how states can and cannot remove voters from the rolls (Section 8).
Rogers also cites “poor training requirements and lack of oversight and accountability of motor vehicle offices have led to problems with noncompliance” and,
After initial success in its first two years of implementation,” Rogers writes, “Section 7 has been largely neglected (and in some cases almost wholly ignored) by many state agencies. A lack of authority on the part of chief election officials over state public agencies, and a failure on the part of the Department of Justice to enforce the requirement, have contributed to the pervasive failure of Section 7, to the disadvantage of millions of eligible low-income and minority Americans.”
Project Vote estimates that compliance with the NVRA provisions could bring 2 to 3 million new low-income voters into the counts yearly. Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration Department of Justice pretty much ignored the Act. I’ve got to believe that President Obama, himself a former voter registration organizer, will provide stronger leadership to enforce the NVRA. As president, however, he’s got a longer list of higher priorities, so we can’t assume that the Adminsitration will provide adequate leadership to make the NVRA rise to its potential.
Then there is also the thorny issue of weak enforcement by Democrats in power. As, Bruce Dixon, one of the commenters to Mcdunnah’s post notes:
I worked in county govt – Cook County in Chicago, the office of David Orr, the county clerk office which is responsible for registrations and elections in the half of the county outside the city of Chicago. I recall we had no end of problems with the state of Illinois resolutely refusing to carry out the provisions of NVRA. We were able to get them to allow us to place registrars in Chicago city and suburban motor vehicle registration facilities and a very few other state offices. But we never got deeper cooperation than that, and certainly there was never anything like statewide implementation of NVRA…This was the case even though a Democrat held the office of state attorney general most of that time. Our office asked, requested, importuned and begged that elected Democrat for years to come out with some kind of advisory opinion to the effect that the state was somehow obligated to do so, but to no avail.
Dixon identifies the Illinois A.G. as Roland Burris, now U.S. Senator. The point here is not to target Burris as the only Democrat who didn’t provide the needed leadership to enforce the NVRA. No doubt there are other states in which Democrats, as well as Republicans, failed to provide the needed leadership. No matter how strongly President Obama rises to the challenge of enforcing the legislation, there is still the problem of limp enforcement at the state level, a worthy challenge not only for Democratic leaders who undertand the importance of this legislation in securing their party’s future — but for all Americans who believe that healthy turnouts keep democracy strong.