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Reviving the Motor Voter Law

Editorial // Published April 11, 2009 in The New York Times

The New York Times Editorial Board urges the Justice Department to enforce "motor voter" and asks Congress to enact universal voter registration.

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, widely known as the motor voter law, to make it easier for eligible voters to register and to increase registration rates of traditionally underrepresented groups, including poor people.

In addition to requiring states to provide voter registration materials to people applying for and renewing driver’s licenses, the law requires states to offer registration forms at offices that administer public assistance such as food stamps and unemployment insurance.

States started out with some enthusiasm, but in recent years compliance has fallen sharply. Project Vote and Demos, public-interest groups that work for voting rights, studied the implementation of the motor voter law nationally from 1995 to 2007. In a 2005 study of 103 people leaving a Department of Jobs and Family Services office in Ohio, only three reported being given voter registration forms. Surveys conducted outside of public assistance offices in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland and other states found similar problems.

Not surprisingly, the motor voter law is proving to be far less effective in registering voters than it should be. According to the report by Project Vote and Demos, the number of people registering from public assistance agencies fell 79 percent between 1995 and 1996 — the first years for which data were collected — and 2005 and 2006, the most recent reporting period.

This week, Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat of New York, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and asked him to sue states that fail to comply with the National Voter Registration Act. For eight years, the Bush Justice Department showed little interest in enforcing the law. The Obama administration needs to do better.

The larger answer to low registration rates is to enact laws requiring universal voter registration, which would put the burden on states to find people — through government lists, including tax records — and register them. But until that happens, the Justice Department should make sure that states follow the motor voter law’s more modest mandates.