Voters stand in line during the fourth day of early voting in North Miami, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, as Floridians cast their ballot seven days before Election Day. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Throughout American history, restrictions on voter registration were a major tool of disenfranchisement. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, only a quarter of African-Americans in the South were registered to vote. Four years after the VRA outlawed literacy tests and other voter suppression devices, the number of black Southeners registered to vote had more than doubled.
Despite the transformative impact of the VRA, one of the most consequential laws in American history, obstacles to voter registration persisted. There were few locations at which to register, limited hours, recalcitrant county registrars, frequent voter purges and complex re-registration schemes. “Overall registration rates were lower in 1992 than in 1972,” notes a new report from Demos.
Voting rights reformers, led by CUNY professor Frances Fox Piven, launched a campaign in the 1980s to make voter registration easier as a way to fulfill the long-overdue promise of the VRA. On May 20, 1993, President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act, which made it possible to register to vote at the DMV and other public agencies, such as public assistance and disability centers, allowed prospective voters to mail in voter registration forms and made it simpler for third-party groups to conduct voter registration drives. In its first year on the books, in 1995, over 30 million people registered to vote or updated their voter registration through the NVRA. “Since the implementation of the NVRA, an estimated 141 million Americans have applied to get on the voter rolls through registration services the NVRA requires at DMVs, disability offices, and public agencies,” reports Project Vote. “In addition, countless more have been protected from purging due to the protections the NVRA provides.”
Much progress has been made as we mark the 20th anniversary of the NVRA, but there’s still a long way to go. A quarter of eligible US citizens are not registered to vote. As Attorney General Eric Holder has noted, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible Americans who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote. States in recent years have escalated attacks on voter registration.