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New York's Failure to Comply with the "Motor/Voter" Law

Committee on Social Welfare Law

Introduction

      The Department of Justice initiated a lawsuit against New York State for failure to enforce provisions of the National Voter Registration Act ("NVRA").[1]  Popularly known as the "Motor Voter" Law, the NVRA was enacted by Congress in response to years of declining voter turnout.[2]  Concerned with difficulties encountered by individuals seeking to register to vote,[3]  Congress designed the NVRA to "establish procedures . . . [to] increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal office" and "to enhance[ ] the participation of eligible citizens as voters in elections for Federal office."[4] 

      The NVRA requires that states afford their citizens the opportunity to register to vote or update voter registrations when renewing drivers' licenses at "all offices in the State that provide public assistance" and at "all offices in the State that provide State-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities" (the last two locations collectively called "public assistance offices").[5]  The purpose of providing this service at public assistance offices is "to supplement the motor-voter provisions of the bill by reaching out to those citizens who are likely not to benefit from the State motor-voter registration application provisions."[6]  Thus, the establishment of voter registration procedures at these public assistance offices "provides a useful supplement to motor-voter registration systems, [and] enables more low income and minority citizens to become registered."[7] 

      In fulfilling their obligations under the NVRA, states must perform a number of services at public assistance offices. First, the state must provide an opportunity to register to vote or update voter registration for all individuals who apply for benefits, reapply for benefits, recertify their benefits, or change their address.[8]  Second, all employees of designated public assistance offices must provide the applicant with the same level of assistance in completing the voter registration form as would be given when helping the applicant complete the office's own forms.[9]  The applicant, however, retains the right in these situations to decline this assistance and the applicant's eligibility for benefits or services may not be affected by the applicant's decision whether or not to register to vote.[10]  Lastly, the office must accept the voter registration form and submit it to the appropriate state election official in a timely fashion.[11] 

New York's Inadequate Implementation of the NVRA

      Although New York amended its Election Law in 1994 to bring it into compliance with the requirements of the NVRA,[12]  the State has not yet fulfilled its obligation to provide individuals who apply for public assistance and who visit public assistance offices the opportunity to register to vote. For example, only fourteen percent of voter registration/renewals conducted at state agencies in 1999 took place at public assistance offices; seventy-four percent of voter registrations handled by state agencies in 1999 took place at motor vehicle offices.[13]  More crucially, public assistance offices are not even making visitors aware of their right to register to vote at the office with the same degree of effectiveness as does the Department of Motor Vehicles. Approximately 40% percent of persons visiting a Department of Social Services office were not notified of their right to register at the office; .03% percent were not notified at Departments of Motor Vehicles.[14] 

      This difference is crucial. Many low-income households cannot afford to own an automobile. In addition, African-American and Latino households in New York State are nearly three times less likely to own an automobile than Caucasians in the State, and Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander households are half as likely to own a car as Caucasians.[15]  Thus, the two populations that the statute was intended to help, low-income and minority voters, are being severely under-served.

The Legal Community's Response

      Three lawsuits are currently pending against New York State challenging the State's implementation of the NVRA. The Department of Justice initiated United States v. New York in 1998. Notably, this is the only pending action brought by the Justice Department against a state for failure to enforce the NVRA. Filed in the Eastern District of New York, the suit asserts that New York State has been inconsistent in its implementation of the NVRA in state subsidized agencies that provide services for public assistance recipients, Medicaid recipients and the disabled. Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now v. Pataki, also filed in the Eastern District of New York, alleges that there has been inconsistent compliance with the NVRA at welfare centers in New York City that are staffed by the Human Resource Administration and supervised by the Department of Social Services. Lastly, Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York v. Hammons, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the State has failed to comply with the NVRA as it relates to Medicaid applicants. These three suits were consolidated before Judge Frederic Block in the Eastern District and are currently in the midst of discovery.

Conclusions and Recommendations

      "The right to vote has long been recognized as central to the protection and exercise of the other rights guaranteed in our society."[16]  New York State's resistance to following the NVRA has deprived those historically overlooked in the voting process - low and moderate income individuals and minorities - an opportunity to participate in the electoral process; it undermines both the spirit of the law and our fundamental notions of democracy. Voter registration is even more critical in this election year; New Yorkers must not be denied the opportunity to take part in this process. The crucial first step is that New York take all actions necessary to enforce the NVRA.


[1]  See United States v. New York, 3 F. Supp.2d 298 (E.D.N.Y. 1998). Return to Text

[2]  42 U.S.C. ?1973gg et seq.; see Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ("ACORN") v. Miller, 129 F.3d 833, 834-35 (6th Cir. 1997) ("Nevertheless, many practical barriers remain that inhibit the free exercise of this recognized right [to vote]. Among such barriers are restrictive or prohibitively inconvenient voter registration requirements that discourage or even prevent qualified voters from registering and participating in elections. In an attempt to reinforce the right of qualified citizens to vote by reducing the restrictive nature of voter registration requirements, Congress passed the [NVRA]."). Return to Text

[3]  Sen. Rep. 103-66, 103rd Cong., 1st Sess. (February 25, 1993) ("Sen. Rep."), at 2. Return to Text

[4]  42 U.S.C. ?1973gg(b)(1) & (2); see ACORN v. Fowler, 178 F.3d 350, 354 (5th Cir. 1999); ACORN v. Edgar, 56 F.3d 791, 792 (7th Cir. 1995); United States v. New York, 3 F. Supp. 2d 298, 299 (E.D.N.Y. 1998). Return to Text

[5]  42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-5(a)(2)(A) & (B). The NVRA also mandates that the States establish procedures to allow people to register to vote by mail. See 42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-4. Return to Text

[6]  H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 103-66, 103rd Cong., 1st Sess. (April 28, 1993) ("Conf. Rep."), at 19; see United States v. State of New York, 3 F. Supp. 2d at 299-300. Return to Text

[7]  Sen. Rep. at 14; . Return to Text

[8]  42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-5(a)(4)(A)(i) & (6)(A). Return to Text

[9]  42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-5(a)(4)(A)(ii) & (6)(C). Return to Text

[10]  42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-5(a)(5)(D). Concomitantly, the worker may not make any statement to the applicant which (a) seeks to influence an applicant's political preference or party allegiance, (b) displays any such political preference or party allegiance or (c) discourages the applicant from registering to vote. 42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-5(a)(5)(A)-(C). Return to Text

[11] 42 U.S.C. ?1973gg-5(a)(4)(iii) & (d). Return to Text

[12]  N.Y. Election Law ?5-211. Return to Text

[13] Comparison of New York State Board of Elections NVRA Totals by Agency, 1/1/99 - 10/31/99. Return to Text

[14] Comparison of New York State Board of Elections NVRA Totals by Agency, 1/1/96 - 9/30/96. In 1996, 2,790,004 people visited New York State Departments of Motor Vehicles offices whereas only 928,618 people visited a Department of Social Services office - making the disparity even more difficult to understand. This comparison of "those asked" was performed by examining the amount of "Blanks" listed on the table cited to. Blanks are registration cards that are not filled out in any way. When offered the opportunity to register at state agencies, you may: register, decline, state you have already registered or mail the form in yourself; if none of these options is exercised, the registration card is left "blank." All of the other options, save for mailing the form yourself, require a signature by the citizen being asked to register. As such, blanks are a good indicator of whether people are being notified of their right to register at state agencies; if they are being told of the procedure and do not wish to register, citizens may simply sign their name indicating so. Return to Text

[15] See Percent Households Without Cars, New York State, by Racial-Ethnic Group, 1990 Census. Return to Text

[16]  ACORN v. Miller, 129 F.3d at 834.