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Report On National Voter Registration Act Highlights Benefits For American Women

New York--At the end of 2010 National Women’s History Month, it is clear that women are now increasingly falling victim to the worst aspects of the long-term recession. Low-income women have been hit particularly hard.  At the same time, nearly a third of low-income women were not registered to vote in 2008, effectively denying them a voice in the democratic process.  A new report by the policy center Demos documents how proper implementation of a 15-year old federal voter registration law has the potential to bring millions of low-income women into the political process.

“Long-term structural inequalities and ongoing discrimination have left many women economically disadvantaged.  These realities are now being exacerbated by the economic downturn, making it especially important for low-income women to maximize their political power,” said co-author of the study Scott Novakowski, who is senior policy analyst at Demos.  “Yet, for a variety of reasons, their rates of voter registration—a threshold requirement in most states for the most fundamental means of political participation, voting—remain low.”

The report, entitled "Increasing Access in Hard Times: Women and the National Voter Registration Act”, shows that there is already a law on the books that has the potential, if implemented properly, to open up the political process to millions of low-income women.  Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires state public assistance agencies to provide voter registration services to clients and applicants for benefits.  As women are increasingly affected by the economic downturn and as public assistance rolls expand dramatically, the NVRA may be the most effective vehicle for ensuring that low-income women have a voice in the democratic process.  

In the best of times, women’s wages are only 77 percent of what men earn and women are more likely than men to live below the poverty line. Following the economic downturn, women are now experiencing the lagging effects of the recession, including a rise in unemployment, declining wages, and a wave of foreclosures and evictions. They are often economically displaced—having to move from their home or even city—due to the recession, and are more likely to turn to public assistance to cover basic costs.

“The economic realities faced by low-income women underscore the long-standing need for them to have a political voice.  The impact of the recent economic downturn on women adds even greater urgency to the need for a truly representative electorate, and the NVRA helps to achieve this goal,” says Youjin B. Kim, a Demos researcher and co-author of the report.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, a public assistance agency must provide voter registration services with each application, recertification or renewal, or change of address related to benefits.  Specifically, the agency must distribute voter registration applications, provide assistance to clients in completing the application, and transmit all completed registration applications to election officials within a prescribed time frame.

While many states have largely ignored the requirements of Section 7 over the past 15 years, resulting in a 62 percent decline in the number of registrations submitted and a handful of legal actions, recent experience demonstrates the effectiveness of the law when properly implemented.

“There is huge potential under the NVRA to add millions of low-income citizens – the majority of them women -  to the voter registration rolls,” said Novakowski.

When implemented as intended public agency voter registration produces dramatic results in bringing low-income citizens into the democratic process.  

--In Missouri, almost 208,000 low-income citizens applied for voter registration at the state’s Department of Social Services in the first 18 months following a successful court action to improve compliance, an increase of 1,600 percent over the number of clients the state was previously registering.

--Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services reported over 29,000 voter registration applications completed at its offices in just the first two months of data reporting following a settlement agreement with Demos and its partners, as compared to a monthly average of only 1,775 per month in the years prior to the filing of the lawsuit.

--In North Carolina, over 100,000 low-income citizens have applied to register to vote in the state’s public assistance agencies since the State Board of Elections worked cooperatively with Demos and others to improve NVRA compliance, a six-fold increase over the state’s previous performance.

--The number of voter registration applications from Virginia’s public assistance agencies increased five-fold after Demos worked cooperatively with state officials to improve their procedures.

“As more and more women are forced to turn to public assistance, the potential for empowering them to participate in the political process is great,” said Brenda Wright, director of Demos’ Democracy Program. “Invigorating NVRA implementation at public assistance agencies would ensure that the millions of women experiencing financial hardship are able to become—and to stay—registered voters with the ability to participate in elections and act as full partners in our democracy.”

To preview the report, please visit demos.org. To schedule an interview with the authors, see contact information.

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 Contact: Tim Rusch, (212) 389-1407, trusch@demos.org



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