By M. Mindy Moretti, Electionline Weekly, a project of the Pew Center on the States.
Seventeen years after Congress approved the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) — otherwise known as “Motor Voter” — the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released a set of guidelines for implementation as part of its enforcement of the Act.
“The Voter Registration Requirements of Sections 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), Questions and Answers,” detail what states must do in order to offer the voter registration services required by the law.
According to many in the election community DOJ’s issuance of these new guidelines is “a pretty big deal.”
“In general, I think there was an understanding in the community that they [DOJ] were going to be doing guidelines eventually,” said Estelle Rogers, director of advocacy for Project Vote. “When a statute is written, generally everyone thinks it’s really clear, but over time, it becomes clear that a lot of people don’t know what it means or how to implement it and I think that’s one of the things that happened with NVRA.”
Rogers noted that nearly 50 years later, guidelines are still being produced for the Voting Rights Act. She also noted that unlike other acts, there is very little litigation surrounding NVRA that can be used as guidance. Rogers actually believes that these new guidelines will further help reduce the amount of litigation.
“This should prevent a lot of litigation,” Rogers said. “If election officials are careful about their procedures and they read this [the guidelines] and get it memorized it’s going to prevent a lot of litigation because there should now be no confusion.”
The news guidelines for Section 5 make it clear that visiting the department of motor vehicles for a new license, renewal or address change be a seamless process for voter registration and updating voter records. While this had been implied in the past, the new guidelines make it clear.
“Each State motor vehicle driver’s license application (including any renewal application) submitted to a State motor vehicle authority must serve as a simultaneous voter registration application unless the applicant fails to sign the voter registration application.”
New Mexico recently partially settled a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups which claimed that the less than 3,000 voter registration forms submitted by the state’s motor vehicle department in 2007 and 2008 was suspiciously low.
The settlement requires MVD staffers to be designated as National Voter Registration Act coordinators, who will help ensure compliance with the law through education and training and by making sure offices have equipment needed for voter registrations. The MVD must update computer systems and websites and monitor compliance. The agreement also requires offices to post signs telling members of the public they can register to vote at that office.
Section 6 clarifies what state’s must offer and accept with regard to mail-in voter registration and concludes that while states may create their own mail-in registration form—in addition to using the federal mail voter registration form—those forms must include all the same information as the federal form.
Section 7 of NVRA is where most problems have occurred for those states that have run into trouble with NVRA. Section 7 clarifies which state agencies that provide federal and state assistance must offer voter registration forms. The section also clarifies that in addition to offices providing public assistance states are also required to designate other offices as voter registration agencies. “A State is free to determine which other agencies/offices should be designated, according to its needs and preferences, but it must make additional designations.”
Rogers notes that when the Act was first implemented in the mid-1990s, states were very good about complying, but as time went by there was a drop-off in compliance.
A recent investigation by a local newspaper in New York City found that city agencies were “uneven” in providing voter registration materials.
According to the paper, among the agencies that did not provide voter registration forms, some agencies said found it was an uncommon request. Lucille Hartman, District Manager of Queens Community Board told the paper she has worked there for 30 years and has rarely had to distribute forms.
“I can easily count the number of times I’ve given out voter registration forms,” she said.
Another area that DOJ attempts to codify is who, and when a person may be removed from a voter roll.
“It prohibits removing registrants from the voter registration list solely because of the failure to vote. It also prohibits removing registrants from the registration list due to a change of address to another location within the same registrar’s jurisdiction, even if the voter has failed to notify the registrar of the move within the jurisdiction. It also places restrictions of notice and timing on removals from the voter registration list when second-hand information is received, such as returned mail, which suggests a registrant may have moved outside of the registrar’s jurisdiction.”
This may frustrate some states that have interstate compacts and want to share and compare lists to more quickly remove duplicates. The new guidelines make it abundantly clear that no one can be removed for simply not voting, or inactivity.
The National Voting Rights Act is a living document and one that many in the election industry expect to be clarified even more as the years go by.
“Overall they are a tremendous contribution to the understanding of what the law demands,” Rogers said. “I certainly hope it will help voters if election officials in the states pay attention and take it seriously.”