Federal law requires that public assistance agencies must make voter registration materials available to voters. But folks receiving that assistance have a habit of voting Democratic, making the law one that the Bush administration wasn't too keen on enforcing.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants Attorney General Eric Holder to reverse that dynamic. He sent the top lawyer a letter Tuesday calling on him to vigorously enforce the law and sue states that refuse to comply.
"The Bush administration essentially condoned this flouting of the law, but with new leadership at the Justice Department, we hope states will be made to meet their obligations," said Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the last two election cycles.
The law accounted for 2.6 million voter registrations in its first two years. But since 1996, new registrations at these locations have declined by 79 percent. Some of that decline, presumably, came because the easily register-able folks had been registered, but Schumer cites examples of state action impacting the results.
"Between the mid-1990's and 2004, North Carolina social service agencies experienced an almost 75 percent decline in the number of voter registration submissions. Nonprofit voter groups worked with North Carolina to develop a plan to improve registration rates at state social service agencies to comply with Section 7. After the state had implemented its improved registration plan, North Carolina experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of voter registration at state agencies," Schumer writes to Holder.
In 2008, Schumer wrote then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey on the same subject. Mukasey replied that 18 states were under investigation for failing to implement parts of the law, but refused to name the states.
April 7, 2008
The Honorable Eric Holder
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Dear Attorney General Holder:
I write to request that the U.S. Department of Justice fully enforce the voter registration provisions established in Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). For too long, the NVRA has not been adequately enforced, and too many American citizens have been denied the chance to participate in our democracy as voters.
The NVRA contains provisions intended to increase the number of eligible people who are registered to vote, and also provisions that provide mechanisms to remove individuals who are no longer eligible from the voter registration rolls. During the last Administration, your predecessors appear to have enforced only the provisions that would remove names from the rolls. It is clear that states need to do more to comply with the NVRA, and I respectfully request that the Civil Rights Division move to determine whether state agencies are complying with these requirements of the Act.
In a letter dated July 16, 2008, the Department of Justice said it was "actively investigating a number of jurisdictions which have admitted to low voter registration rates at state public assistance agencies." The letter further claimed that because the investigations are "ongoing," your "ability to investigate, as well as [your] ability to resolve any lawsuit" would be jeopardized by providing information to Congress. I do not wish to disrupt any ongoing investigation. However, since that letter - almost a year ago - no legal action appears to have been taken to enforce Section 7 requirements to strengthen the voter registration efforts of state social service agencies. That is simply unacceptable. Where it is warranted, I urge the Department of Justice to sue the states who are not complying with this provision.
Without action or leadership from the Department of Justice, private groups have taken on the responsibility to work with states to improve NVRA compliance. Between the mid-1990's and 2004, North Carolina social service agencies experienced an almost 75% decline in the number of voter registration submissions. Nonprofit voter groups worked with North Carolina to develop a plan to improve registration rates at state social service agencies to comply with Section 7. After the state had implemented its improved registration plan, North Carolina experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of voter registration at state agencies.
Better compliance does not mean increased costs for state agencies. The Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections provided written testimony to a Rules Committee hearing last year that "there have not been extensive additional expenditures of funds and manpower created by the NVRA mandates." It is clear that working with other states to ensure the law is being followed will yield similar results: increased registration rates without higher costs.
At a hearing on March 11, 2009 of the Senate Rules Committee, "Voter Registration: Assessing Current Problems," a groundbreaking new study was presented, which revealed that millions of eligible voters were disenfranchised in the 2008 election because of problems with the voter registration system. One of the key concerns is that eligible individuals are not offered the option to register and vote at state motor vehicle agencies, public assistance agencies, and agencies that provide services to people with disabilities. These organizations are not usually under the control of a chief state election official. Therefore, the social service agency heads need to be aware of their responsibilities under the Act. I believe it is high time that the Department of Justice work with those state agencies to ensure full compliance.
I am requesting an update on specific steps taken by the Department of Justice to ensure compliance with this very important civil rights law. While details concerning ongoing investigations may not be released, as Chairman of the Rules Committee, I would like to know what efforts the Department of Justice plans to take to remedy the apparent lack of NVRA Section 7 enforcement over the last eight years.
I know you share my commitment to full enforcement of this law by the Department of Justice so that all eligible voters, including the most vulnerable, can have their voices heard in our elections.
Chairman, Committee on Rules and Administration