Revamping Voter Registration to Reduce Disparities in the Electorate

By Erin Ferns

Although the 2008 presidential election showcased a more diverse electorate with an increase in voter registration and turnout by historically underrepresented Americans – including youth and minorities – the movement toward a more balanced electorate that represents all citizens is still a work in progress.  Advocates have long maintained–and recently Congress has heard testimony to the fact–that disparities in turnout rates are less an issue of voter apathy, and more related to a severe lack of democratic access for many groups. The growing awareness of this problem has inspired an increased interest among citizens, advocates, legislators, and officials to improve the administration of elections, particularly regarding voter registration.

Enforcing Current Voter Registration Law

As Project Vote reported last week, with the release of an analysis of the 2008 electorate based on U.S. Census data, while the 2008 electorate showed improvement significant disparities still remain in voter registration and turnout between low-income and wealthy Americans. In 2008 there was a there was a 20 point gap in the registration rates between Americans from households earning $25,000 or less per year and those earning over $100,000.

One culprit for this continuing imbalance in representation is the states' failure to comply  with provisions of the National Voter Registration Act that require public assistance programs to provide voter registration opportunities to their clients and applicants. These provisions were added specifically to help register low-income Americans and close the gaps in participation, but have been largely ignored by many states.

On April 10, the New York Times cited a recent report by Project Vote and pubic policy group, Demos that found registration at public assistance agencies dropped 79 percent in the 10 year period for which data was collected between 1995 and 2006.

Unsurprised by the lack of enforcement of public agency registration, the Times called on Obama's Justice Department to “do better” than the Bush administration, which “showed little interest in enforcing the law” that is supposed “to make it easier for eligible voters to register and to increase registration rates of traditionally underrepresented groups, including poor people.

“The larger answer to low registration rates is to enact laws requiring universal voter registration, which would put the burden on states to find people — through government lists, including tax records — and register them,” the Times editorialized. “But until that happens, the Justice Department should make sure that states follow the motor voter law's more modest mandates.”

Automating Voter Registration Procedures

“Universal Voter Registration” has been of key interest following the 2008 election as advocates and the media report on the voter registration system's negative impact on eligible voters who faced wrongful voter purges, or missed voter registration deadlines, among other voting barriers. With the NVRA currently being the “the only mechanism through which the government gets involved at all in voter registration,” there's room for innovative improvements, according to Tova Wang, vice president of research at advocacy group, Common Cause in an April 8 Christian Century report.

“A better term for it is automatic permanent registration,” Wang said.  “Under such a system, the government gets people on the rolls in the first place and then keeps them on…At every point of their interaction with the government, citizens who are unregistered would be put on the registration list unless they opted out.” Wang also noted how this would help mobile voters (who also tend to be young and low-income citizens) since “your change of address with the postal service or the DMV, for example, could automatically update your registration status. Your voter registration would essentially become portable.”

Legislators on the state and Congressional levels are also addressing voter registration access issues on a smaller scale. Some measures focus on enfranchising young people through preregistration on the state level or requiring college campuses to serve as voter registration agencies by amending the NVRA. (Despite surges in youth voting in 2008, particularly among minority youths, roughly half of eligible 18-29 year olds failed to cast a ballot on Election Day.) More expansive efforts to create voter registration access online have been discussed in both state and federal legislatures, a movement that we warned lawmakers to approach with caution in a March 25 blog entry.

“While any attempt to make voter registration more accessible is to be applauded, it is important to note that these bills only benefit those who have the resources to obtain a driver's license or state ID. The very people most in need of increased accessibility to voter registration–low-income Americans, minorities, new citizens, young, and elderly voters–are those least likely to be helped by this kind of electronic registration…If we do not wish to perpetuate the current imbalances in the electorate, any efforts to make it easier for citizens to register to vote must recognize the need to make it easier for all citizens, not just those already likely to be enfranchised.”

Through the enforcement of current election law and the careful consideration of voter registration reform that reduces disparities among underrepresented groups, the possibility of an electorate that represents all American citizens may finally be realized.

To monitor election bills, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.