What federal voting rights law, according to the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, is the election statute most often ignored? It’s the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), a law that each year helps millions of citizens with either updating their voter registration records or applying to vote for the first time. Below I explain what the NVRA is, its impact and the challenges it has faced in being put into practice.

Q: What is the NVRA? 

The NVRA is often referred to as “Motor Voter,” but it is more complex than this implies. The NVRA requires states, among other things, to accept voter registration applications by mail and to offer voter registration services at government offices providing state identification and drivers’ licenses (hence “motor”), armed forces recruitment centers, and government offices providing services to people with low incomes or disabilities.

This post focuses on the requirement to register voters at health and social services agencies (or, simply “agencies” in this post). This is a requirement that many states are ignoring or implementing poorly.

While many nations actively — some almost automatically — register their citizens to vote, the U.S. has long required citizens to hunt down registration forms and follow various procedures in order to exercise the franchise. The NVRA was intended to turn this around, at least in part, by requiring some government agencies to actively offer you the chance to register to vote.

Thus the NVRA requires not simply that offices stack voter registration applications on a table near the door. Rather, the law requires officials to ask, during certain agency interactions with the public, if these people would like to register to vote or update a voting address.

For instance, the NVRA requires that motor vehicle offices integrate voter registration applications into drivers’ license applications and other forms. There is no need to provide name, address, and date of birth, as the drivers’ license application already captured that. Nationwide, more than a third of all voter registration applications are filed this way.

But health and social service agencies have more complicated procedures and forms, and getting Congress to agree to include them in the NVRA was a struggle. As a result, the NVRA’s requirements for these agencies involve extra steps from the public and staff. A few additional steps may not sound like much, but the difference in procedures and paperwork have been easier for agency staff to exclude, forget, or never be aware of. Monitoring and measuring whether those agencies are fulfilling their voter registration duties has been a struggle as well. As a result, such agencies fail to offer registration services to millions of citizens every year.

One note: A few states had election day registration before 1996, and are exempt from some NVRA provisions. North Dakota is exempt because it does not require voters to register at all.

Q: Why is the NVRA important?

Congress passed the NVRA after finding that “discriminatory and unfair registration laws” in many states reduced voting by minority and low-income citizens. The gap in registration rates between the rich and the poor in the United States is large. In 2012 it was roughly 20 points. Similarly, some minority groups have registration rates well below that of whites. In addition, the most common complaint on Election Day is from citizens facing problems with their registration status.

In short, the NVRA is important, among other reasons, because it is specifically designed to reduce the demographic gaps in voting — and does according to a body of academic research.

Q: This week a new report to Congress about the NVRA was released.  What does it show?

Congress requires biennial reports on the Act’s implementation from the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The latest report, released this week, contains evidence of poor compliance with the law, especially with those provisions designed to register citizens with lower incomes.

For example, Pennsylvania, which has been sued before for failing to implement the NVRA, reported that between November 2012 and October 2014, only one voter registration application was filed from these agencies. Rhode Island, which has also been sued for compliance problems, failed to report whether there were any registrations at these agencies. Maine, New Jersey, South Dakota, Utah and Washington also failed to report data. In the same report issued four years earlier, North Carolina and Virginia reported 72,128 and 32,368 registration applications. In the new report, these states’ agency registration applications dropped to 33,332 and 14,497.

Since 1994, I have helped states implement the NVRA and have researched NVRA implementation. In doing so, I have learned that reports of few agency registrations, or failure to track where registrations come from, indicates that a state is highly unlikely to be complying with  the NVRA. As discussed below, careful monitoring of voter registration services, including tracking where registration forms come from, is one of the keys to successful NVRA implementation.

Reviews of states’ voter registration policies and the many lawsuits brought by both the Justice Department and civil rights organizations against states that are not complying with the Act have turned up clear evidence of shoddy compliance. The evidence ranges from state policies that improperly complicate voter registration to local offices that simply have no voter registration forms.

The EAC data on registrations at armed forces recruitment centers and disability offices in many states are also spotty or indicate so few registrations that compliance with the NVRA should be in doubt.

Q: What pushes states to register voters as widely as required?

U.S. officials and civil rights advocates have tried three main strategies. One clearly works best.

The first is technical assistance. Since 2004, non-profit organizations, in particular Project Vote and Demos, have helped states design agency procedures that ensure the public is offered voter registration services. This assistance has often led to substantial improvements in office procedures, but the improvements sometimes disappear a couple of years later.

The second involves training state officials to encourage local agency staff to follow policy. Michael Hanmer, David Nickerson, and I studied the impact of two such measures in particular.  One was to require local agency staff to take a brief on-line training on how to properly offer and transmit voter registration applications. The second involved having the state send an email to county agencies reminding the managers of the NVRA’s requirements. We studied these two measures because they are typical of how state officials respond to compliance problems within agencies.

In our field experiments, these interventions had a modest impact on the number of registrations completed at these agencies, but only at county offices that seemed to be in partial compliance with the law before the study. At those offices that were not in compliance before the study, we found no impact.

The third measure is litigation. This seems to most effectively push states to register voters as required, at least for as long as they’re subject to consent agreements or court orders. For example, before Georgia settled with voting rights groups the state reported only 279 registrations health and social services from November 2008 to October 2010. After the state settled in 2012, however, the state reported 34,588 registration applications from these agencies from November 2012 to October 2014.

In the end, the settlements resulting from these lawsuits — or agreements by which states avoid litigation — have helped millions to register or update their registrations at these agencies, which is just as important.

Q: How many more people register to vote when states do what the NVRA requires?

According to the latest EAC report, Ohio reported that 197,842 voter registration forms were filed from public aid agencies during the two-year election cycle covered by the report, November 2012 to October 2014. Tennessee reported 85,935 registration applications filed. Missouri reported 72,617 applications. These examples demonstrate that following the NVRA does help register large numbers of low-income voters even in a non-presidential election cycle.

Q: What does the EAC report say about the failure of many states to offer voter registration in agencies serving low-income and disabled populations?

Nothing.

This omission, which has continued from the time the agency took over responsibility for these reports to Congress, means the EAC has failed to report to Congress that many states are not properly fulfilling the NVRA’s intent: to reduce voter registration inequalities.

And that’s a missed opportunity. Many election officials, academics, grant-making foundations, and some conservative organizations have been focusing on cleaning voter lists, which is discussed and encouraged in the EAC report. However, because Americans move so often—about one in eight do not stay at the same address for a full year — proper voter registration services at poverty, disability, and armed forces recruitment agencies would help officials to maintain accurate lists.

By adding or correcting registrations for tens of thousands of citizens each week nationwide, full implementation of the NVRA would kill two birds with one stone: registration lists would be “cleaner” and demographic gaps in registration rates would be reduced, as Congress intended.

Douglas R. Hess is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Grinnell College. 

The research discussed above was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.