State welfare offices across the country are not offering millions of low-income Americans the opportunity to register to vote when applying for public assistance despite a federal law requiring them to do so, according to an analysis of a recent federal voting registration report and experts who say the Department of Justice and states are to blame.
"It's huge. It's another area where the administration is failing us," said Donna Brazile, chair of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute, speaking of the Department of Justice's oversight of the nation's voter registration laws. "They are not pushing states to recognize their voter registration responsibilities."
At the same time, the Justice Department's Voting Section, which enforces voting rights and supervises elections in some states, is pressuring 10 states to do more to purge voter rolls -- or remove ineligible voters -- before the 2008 presidential election, according to letters sent to state election officials this spring.
"We conducted an analysis of each state's total voter registration numbers as a percentage of citizen voting age population," wrote John Tanner, the Department of Justice Voting Section chief, in an April 18, 2007, letter to North Carolina's top election official. "We write now to assess the changes in your voter registration list ... and the subsequent removal of persons no longer eligible to vote."
Cynthia Magnuson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, confirmed in an e-mail that similar letters had been sent to 10 states, but did not list the recipients. "The Department actively works with all states to comply with all provisions of the statutes we enforce," she said.
Voter lists are updated because people move, die or lose their right to vote if convicted of felonies. But because this process occurs out of public view and without much regulation, it can be open to partisan abuse or produce incorrect results, such as in Florida in 2000 when an estimated 50,000 voters were incorrectly removed from voter registration lists.
The contrast of a Justice Department that apparently has not enforced voter registration opportunities for poor people -- who tend to vote Democratic -- and a department that is pressuring states to more thoroughly trim voter rolls has prompted some voting rights advocates to accuse the agency of selective enforcement and partisan bias.
"I think it's pretty clear the Justice Department is pursing a partisan agenda to get states to purge voters while ignoring requirements to get states to register voters," said Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, a national nonprofit specializing in voter registration drives targeting low- and moderate-income families.
Voting Section chief John Tanner did return a telephone call to discuss his office's priorities and accomplishments. On Monday, July 16, the House Judiciary Committee announced it was postponing a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, July 17 "because the Department refused to make Voting Section chief John Tanner available to testify," its press release said.
However, Hans A. Von Spakovsky, a former assistant attorney general who served four years as a top Civil Rights Division lawyer overseeing the Voting Rights Section discussed accusations of changing "the enforcement direction of the department" in a June 29, 2007, letter to the Senate Rules Committee. He became a federal elections commissioner in December 2005, and his appointment is under review.
Von Spakovsky's 18-page letter is a detailed defense of some of the department's most controversial recent rulings, such as approving a Texas congressional redistricting plan and a Georgia voter I.D. law that later was blocked in court as a violation of the Constitutional amendment barring poll taxes. Nowhere in the often-technical letter is any mention in section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which is intended to help poor people vote by requiring state welfare agencies to offer the chance to register.
Instead, Von Spakovsky defended an aggressive stance with enforcing the NVRA's voter purge provisions, which fall under section 8 of the law. "The division could not willfully ignore the list maintenance requirements of the NVRA," he wrote. "It is the responsibility of DOJ to enforce these laws."
While the national media has followed the department's firing of U.S. attorneys who, in some cases, did not pursue voter fraud cases -- another priority of longtime GOP lawyer-activists like Von Spakovsky -- the department's oversight of the nation's voter rolls has mostly gone unnoticed. The potential impact on the 2008 election could be enormous, however, especially if millions of disenfranchised people registered and voted.
A just-released federal voter registration report reveals the stakes. In late June, the Election Assistance Commission issued a biennial voter registration report to Congress for 2005 and 2006. The report found that 16.6 million new registration applications were received by state motor vehicles agencies while only 527,752 applications came from state public assistance offices -- a 50 percent drop from 2003-2004. The report also found 13.0 million voters were purged nationwide and 9.9 million were put on "inactive" status, meaning these people have to provide identification before receiving a 2008 ballot.
The potential number of public assistance recipients who could register runs into the millions. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration's FY 2008 budget, federally subsidized "health centers" will serve an estimated 16.3 million patients, a population where "91 percent are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, 64 percent are from racial/ethnic minority groups and 40 percent are uninsured." This is the same population who typically seek a variety of federally subsidized public assistance, from food stamps to fuel assistance to welfare.
Another indication of how many poor people could register is Tennessee, whose elections are federally supervised. From 2005-2006, Tennessee registered 120,992 people at public assistance offices -- nearly a quarter of the national total, the EAC reported. Tennessee registered more voters than the combined totals of welfare office registrations from California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington.