August 01, 1999 Policy

National Voter Registration Act

99A104

American Bar Association
Standing Committee on Election Law
Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities
Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division

Report to the House of Delegates

Recommendation

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association opposes legislation that would repeal the National Voter Registration Act (42 U.S.C. 1973gg et seq.) and, as a means of increasing the number of persons registered to vote and the number of registered voters actually voting in federal, state, territorial and local elections, supports:

  1. Voter registration by mail.
  2. Additional registration facilities at locations that are easily accessible and open during convenient times to the public.
  3. Provision by employers of the necessary time and opportunity for employees to exercise their civic responsibilities to vote.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association supports governmental procedures to prevent fraud in the voter registration process as set forth in the Ballot Integrity Standards Applying to Election Officials, dated August 1989.

Report

Voting is an integral part of American citizenship. Elections in the United States are considered to be the crowning achievement of modern-day democracy. Voting is a fundamental right, privilege and responsibility of citizenship and democracy. Despite the fact that citizens of this country have been bestowed the ability to voice their opinions freely and without reprisal. there are many that do not choose to exercise their privilege of democratic citizenship. The statistics reflect an alarming trend of disinterest and apathy in the electoral process. This unfortunate drop in voter participation must be addressed. As concerned Americans, we believe that steps should be taken to encourage citizens to choose to exercise their right, privilege and responsibility to vote.

Voter participation in presidential and congressional elections has been steadily decreasing since 1964 and has now reached an all time low. In the most recent election of 1998, which was a mid-term election, only 36.1% eligible voting age population cast a ballot. This figure represents the lowest number of those voting in a mid-term election since 1942, when turnout was 35.7% with World War II being a major mitigating factor. In the last presidential election cycle of 1996, only 49.8% of the eligible voting age population went to the polls. This figure represents the lowest presidential election turnout since 1948, when such statistics began to be compiled.

Another important factor in studying voter participation is the comparison between the United States and other western democracies. For example, 71% of eligible Germans voted in their last parliamentary election in 1994; 64.9% in Ireland's last forum election in 1996; 73% in Canada's last prime ministerial election in I 993 and 67% in the last general election in 1997; and 85.9% in Iceland's last presidential election in 1996. While the United States leads rest of the world in many areas, it lags sorely behind in this arena.

Although the statistics are unsettling, there is another focus that must be considered, that of voter registration. When the number of individuals actually registered to vote is considered the statistics change for the better, although still significantly below other democracies. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), in the last presidential election cycle of 1996, 72.7% of the population registered to vote and 65.9% of those registered actually voted.

In a time and environment where voter turnout is decreasing, any and all measures that could have the potential effect of increasing voter participation should be considered carefully. Voter registration is an obvious and important factor in increasing voter participation. And as such any efforts that would raise the number of eligible citizens registered to vote should be supported as a means of achieving this goal. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 is an effective tool for implementing increased voter registration.

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was developed in response to declining trends in voter turnout and also specifically to eliminate the final barriers to voting that had not been addressed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965: voter registration restrictions. The primary component of the NVRA was to require states to establish procedures so that eligible citizens could register to vote for federal elections either by mail application, by simultaneous application with an application for a motor vehicle driver's license and by application in person at state agencies involved in providing public assistance. Aside from the obvious impact of increasing the ability of citizens to register to vote, the NVRA also serves to increase voter registration opportunities for those who belong to segments of the population that are least likely to be registered voters. The different methods of voter registration are meant to facilitate registration for people who are more likely to change residence, younger adults, indigent and homeless individuals, and minorities.

The pertinent section of the NVRA that deals with the present recommendation is the portion that applies to applications by mail. Mail in voter registration forms are developed by the FEC and can be made available to the general public by governmental and private entities. First-time voters who register by mail may be required to vote in person if the individual has not previously voted in the same jurisdiction. The NVRA also facilitates the maintenance of accurate voter lists by providing for regular purging and updating of voter rolls and also encourages the concept of standardized computerization of those same rolls. Election fraud is a federal offense under the requirements of the NVRA. Despite these safeguards, there are those that are concerned with the potential for fraud that may occur with the prevalence of voter registration applications by mail. The Standing Committee on Election Law believes that the Ballot Integrity Standards adopted by the House of Delegates in August of 1989 contain the necessary governmental procedures (e.g. applicable agency regulations) to prevent fraud in the electoral process which can also be found in the NVRA.

Voter registration has risen since the implementation of the NVRA. In the latest FEC study, on the impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, statistics show that voter registration in states covered by the NVRA rose in 1996, by 1.82% or approximately 3.4 million people, as compared with 1992, which was the last comparable election year cycle. It is important to note that these figures should be balanced against the fact that the NVRA had only been in effect for less than 2 years. From 1995 to 1996, 41.5 million individuals registered to vote. Over 70% of the registrations were linked to the NVRA:

  • 33.1% individuals registered at motor vehicle offices;
  • 29.7% by mail;
  • 6.3% at public assistance offices; and
  • 4.2% at state designated sites.

These statistics point to the fact that it is obvious that if individuals are given easily accessible opportunities to register to vote they will. Accordingly, the Standing Committee on Election Law recommends that mail in voter registration and the establishment of additional registration facilities at locations that are easily accessible and open during convenient times to the public are principles that should be supported. There should be no preventable obstacles to citizen participation in the electoral process.

A recent study by the U.S. Bureau of the Census inquired as to the reasons given for not voting by registered voters in the 1996 elections.

  • 22% responded that they did not vote because they could not get time off from work or were too busy; 
  • 17% had no interest; 
  • 15% cited illness or family emergency; 
  • 13% had no preference for any of the candidates; 
  • 11% were traveling; 
  • 4% forgot to vote; 
  • 4% had no transportation; and finally 
  • 1% felt that the lines were too long.

When compared to the same set of statistics reported in 1980 the most glaring difference is found in the category where individuals cannot take the time from work to vote; in 1980 only 8% of those registered to vote did not vote for that reason. Disinterest in the electoral process also rose from 11% to 17%. Almost 40% of individuals not voting have no interest in the process or feel that they do not have the time to exercise their right to vote. This Association adopted policy in August 1989 encouraging all lawyers to register and vote in all elections and that all lawyers should encourage and assist their associates and employees of their offices or firms, among other things, by providing necessary leave to register and vote. This resolution would merely expand this concept beyond law firms. The Standing Committee on Election Law believes that this concept must be broadened and that all employers should allow their employees the necessary time and opportunity necessary to exercise their civic responsibilities to vote. As important and as hectic as our daily schedules may become, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the privilege to vote is an integral part of our democratic process and should not be taken lightly. In addition, schools and election administrators should be encouraged to provide information and education about the voting process, such as where to vote and how voting machines and other voting mechanisms work, and about the importance of voting for citizens in our democracy. Although the present recommendation does not specifically address other methods by which voter participation can be broadened, the Standing Committee urges the study of other proposals such as making election day a holiday and voting on weekends.

People in many countries struggle daily for the opportunity to voice their opinions freely and without reprisal. The Standing Committee on Election Law is aware that not even the most effective system of registration will compel all citizens to vote. We are cognizant of the fact that other aspects of declining trends in voter participation must be addressed in great depth and with much consideration. The Standing Committee believes that increasing the number of registered voters is one method of slowing the downward trend of voter participation. There must be a realization that voting is not only an expression of opinion but a fundamental and inherent part of our citizenship. Thus, any improvements that will lead to the possibility of greater citizen participation should be embraced as a positive step in the strengthening of our democracy.

Respectfully Submitted,

Christine A. Varney, Chair
Standing Committee on Election Law
August 1999