This is the third in a series of posts concerned with just democracy.The first was an overview of the current state of our electoral system;the second a look at the prospects for a national popular vote forpresident.
Between 2 and 4 million Americans were unable to vote in the lastelection because of problems with their registration. And that’s justpeople who tried to vote; in 2006, there were more than 65 million whowere eligible to vote, but weren’t even registered. That’s a third ofpotential voters.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Registration rates in other countriesfrequently run upwards of 90 percent (both Canada and France hit thatmark, for example, while Venezuela stands at roughly 94 percent, andRussia about 97). Now reformers are seizing the moment to use existinglaw to expand registration, as well as considering new laws that couldfinally put the United States on an equal footing with many of theworld’s other democracies.
“That’s a pretty staggering number,” says Project Vote’s executivedirector Michael Slater of the millions unable to cast a ballot in 2008.”We don’t have the egregious problems with voter registration that wehad in the past, but it’s still a system that’s far from perfect andit’s still a system that’s preventing people from voting in America.”
As with too much else in America, the divide between the registered andthe unregistered isn’t neutral. The think tank Demos estimates thatwhile 80 percent of citizens in households making $100,000 or more a year areregistered to vote, only 60 percent of those making less than $25,000 a yearcan say the same.
The National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993 and often known asthe ‘Motor-Voter’ Law because it made it possible to register to vote atyour local DMV, was intended not only to make registration easier, butto begin closing the chasm between rich and poor voters. Section 7 ofthe act instructed public assistance agencies to offer everyone whowalked through their doors an opportunity to register to vote. At firststates complied and registrations jumped, but as of 2006 voterregistration applications from public assistance agencies had plummetedfrom over 2.5 million to below 500,000.
Along with Project Vote and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil RightsUnder Law, Demos has set about challenging states to comply with theNVRA. In Missouri, the state’s public assistance agencies had collecteda measly 15,500 registrations in 2005 and 2006. In the six months afterthe coalition won a court ruling against the state in July 2008, thosesame agencies saw 90,000 new registrations. North Carolina saw a similarsix-fold increase in registrations, while Virginia saw monthlyregistration applications leap eight-fold.