Voter registration rolls are a mess — here’s how we can clean them up
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the bipartisan passage of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The brainchild of two New York scholars, Francis Fox Piven and the late Richard Cloward, the NVRA strengthened voting rights by prohibiting several needlessly restrictive state registration policies and expanding opportunities for citizens to register.
Sadly, after three decades, the NVRA is performing far below its potential.
Absent action by officials, bureaucratic or elected, and with or without prodding by voting rights advocates, millions of citizens will be denied registration opportunities between now and the next presidential election. Moreover, because half of voter registration applications update existing registration records, allowing the NVRA to fail means the rolls become littered with inaccuracies.
Partly due to the NVRA’s reforms, voter registration rates have inched upward over the last two decades. Nonetheless, stark inequalities in registration rates still exist. According to Census Bureau data, young, non-white and low-income citizens, as well as those with disabilities or who have recently moved, have markedly lower registration rates than their counterparts. In addition, each election cycle, hundreds of thousands of citizens who thought they were registered report they could not vote due to inaccuracies in the rolls.
One reason for these persistent disparities and errors is that states frequently fail to offer voter registration services to their citizens as required in the NVRA. Indeed, in its final report, the 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration referred to the NVRA as “the election statute most often ignored.” A shockingly widespread form of noncompliance has been the failure of states to offer voter registration services through health and human services programs, such as Medicaid and SNAP, as required in Section 7 of the NVRA.
Several factors suggest that Section 7 programs could reduce registration disparities and correct millions of outdated records. First, these health and human services agencies interact with tens of millions of adult citizens. Before the pandemic, approximately one in six adult citizens participated in at least one of the four largest programs covered by Section 7. Second, this large population has a substantial need for voter registration services. For the average year over the past decade, there has been a 16-point gap in the registration rates between citizens in the lowest- and highest-income quartiles.
The damage noncompliance does to the accuracy and coverage of voter registration lists becomes clear if we consider the volume of registrations produced when state social service agencies operate under agreements or court orders enforcing compliance. After Alabama signed an agreement in 2014, social service voter registration applications jumped from 5,000 for the 2012 election cycle to nearly 120,000 for 2016. In Ohio, agency registrations went from nearly 40,000 in the 2004 election cycle to an average of almost 270,000 per cycle after the state settled Section 7 litigation in 2009. The potential impact on voters of full implementation is clear — fortunately, there are evidence-based ways to move elements of the NVRA from poor to excellent performance.
First, civic organizations, Congress, the Justice Department, state officials and legislators must provide the NVRA with sustained attention to ensure that states comply with the act’s voter registration programs.
Second, several states are exploring how automatic voter registration (AVR) policies in motor voter programs, which more than 20 states have adopted, could be used in Medicaid agencies. Essentially, if Medicaid applicants provide information sufficient for registering or updating an existing registration, their citizenship is confirmed via the Federal Data Services Hub. Data for verified citizens are then electronically passed to election officials for processing. Citizens who do not wish to register or update their registration can opt out, but all other verified citizens are seamlessly registered.
By addressing deficiencies in the design of Section 7, applying optimal AVR practices to Medicaid offers a promising way to both increase client response and improve state noncompliance with the NVRA in a program serving tens of millions of adult citizens. Thirty years after its passage, now is the time to make good on the promise of the NVRA and empower every eligible voter to register, cast a ballot and make their voice heard.
Sam Oliker-Friedland is the executive director of the Institute for Responsive Government. Previously, he was a voting rights litigator at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Prior to that, he worked on election administration law and data in the nonprofit sector.
Douglas R. Hess, Ph.D., is an expert on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Since 1994, he has advised officials and civil rights advocates on implementing the NVRA, and has conducted scholarly research and co-authored testimony for Congress and the National Research Council. A community organizer, he has taught political science at Grinnell College, Smith College, Georgetown University and George Washington University. @douglasrhess