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National Voter Registration Act

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Under the Clinton administration, Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also known as the "NVRA" and the "Motor Voter Act"), to enhance voting opportunities for Americans, though it did not become effective until 1995. The Act has made it easier for all Americans to register to vote and to maintain their registration by providing uniform registration services through driver's license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries and mail-in registration.

It was believed that through government implementation of more active registration proposals it would increase voter turn out rates, which have been on a steady decline.

The NVRA allows the Department of Justice to bring civil actions in federal court to enforce its requirements. The Act also gives the responsibility to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to provide states with guidance on the Act, to develop a national mail voter registration form and to compile reports on the effectiveness of the Act. An amendment in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 transferred the FEC's responsibilities under the Act to the Election Assistance Commission.[1]

Provisions of NVRA

In addition to other methods of voter registration which states offer, the Act requires states to provide the opportunity to apply to register to vote for federal elections three ways:[1]

  • Section 5 of the Act requires states to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver's license or seek to renew a driver's license and requires the state to forward the completed application to the appropriate state of local election official.
  • Section 7 of the Act requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance and all offices that provide state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities. Each applicant for any of these services, renewal of services or address changes must be provided with a voter registration form of a declination form as well as assistance in completing the form and forwarding the completed application to the appropriate state or local election official.

In addition, Section 8 of the Act also creates requirements for how states maintain voter registration lists for federal elections. The Act deems as timely those valid voter registration applications by eligible applicants submitted to designated state and local officials or postmarked if submitted by mail at least 30 days before a federal election. The Act also requires notification of all applicants of whether their voter registration applications were accepted or rejected. The Act requires states to keep voter registration lists accurate and current, such as identifying persons who have become ineligible due to having died or moved outside the jurisdiction. At the same time, the Act requires list maintenance programs to incorporate specific safeguards (example: that they be uniform, non-discriminatory, in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and not be undertaken within 90 days of a federal election). The removal of voters for non-voting or for having moved can only be done after meeting certain requirements provided in the Act. The Act allows for removal of voters from registration lists when they have been convicted of a disqualifying crime or adjudged mentally incapacitated, where such removals are allowed by state law. The NVRA also provides additional safeguards under which registered voters would be able to vote notwithstanding a change in address in certain circumstances. For example, voters who move within a district or a precinct will retain the right to vote even if they have not re-registered at their new address.[1]

Application of NVRA

The NVRA became effective in most states on January 1, 1995. The Act applies to 44 states and the District of Columbia. Section 4(b) of the Act provided that states were exempt from the Act if, as of August 1, 1994, they had no voter registration requirements or had election-day registration at polling places. These six states are Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. In addition, the Act granted additional time to Arkansas, Vermont and Virginia to comply because they needed to change their constitutions in order to comply with the Act and maintain a unitary registration system for federal and state elections.[1]

Enforcement of the NVRA

After the NVRA became effective, several states failed to take the steps necessary to comply with the law; several of them also challenged the constitutionality of the Act. Beginning within a month of the Act's effective date, the Department of Justice responded by filing a series of lawsuits requiring these states to comply with the Act's procedures as well as defending its constitutionality.

Those states involved in the first round of cases included California, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. The Department's litigation addressed each state's refusal, often on constitutional grounds, to implement provisions of the Act. As a result of these cases and actions filed by private individuals, the Act's constitutionality was established and states were ordered to comply with the Act's requirements.

Since that time, the United States has continued to bring litigation to ensure compliance with all facets of the Act.[1]

NVRA news

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