April 24, 2008

Senate Democrats Ask DOJ to Enforce Laws Facilitating Voter Registration

Upcoming November Elections Heighten Need to Ensure All Eligible Americans Have the Opportunity to Register to Vote

Washington, D.C. – With November’s elections drawing closer, several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed concern today that the Department of Justice has failed to enforce a landmark law designed to help Americans register to vote.

In a letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted that DOJ has vigorously enforced statutes that remove voters from the rolls, while refusing to enforce those that aim to expand voter registration. The senators asked Mukasey to specify how DOJ plans to step up enforcement of statutes meant to facilitate registration before the voter registration deadlines for the fall elections.

“Simply put, non-compliance with Section 7 is depriving low-income citizens of an important opportunity to participate in the democratic process,” the senators wrote.

64 million Americans – nearly a third of eligible voters – were not registered to vote in 2006, up from 52 million ten years earlier. Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), enacted in 1993 to reduce barriers to registration, requires states to make voting registration materials available to people applying or reapplying for Medicaid, food stamps, and other public assistance benefits. This requirement is in addition to the well-known “Motor Voter” provision, under which citizens must have the opportunity to register to vote when applying for or renewing a driver’s license.

But while voter registration at state public assistance agencies declined by 79 percent between 1995-96 and 2005-06, the Justice Department, whose Voting Section is responsible for enforcing states’ compliance with NVRA, has brought only one lawsuit to enforce this provision of the statute in the last eight years. In contrast, the Department has been much more aggressive in enforcement actions under Section 8 of NVRA, which governs the purging of voter rolls.

“Since 2000, the Department has brought at least five cases against states and municipalities under Section 8, while paying comparatively little attention to Section 7,” the senators wrote. “This creates the impression, whether founded or not, that the Department is more concerned with removing names from the voter rolls than adding them.”

The senators noted that enforcement of Section 7 has great potential to expand opportunities for low-income Americans to register to vote. Following DOJ’s single Section 7 suit, against the state of Tennessee in 2002, the number of voter registration applications filed through public assistance agencies jumped from less than 50,000 in 1999-2000 to more than 170,000 in 2003-04. By the following year, nearly 20 percent of all public assistance registrations in the entire country took place in Tennessee.


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