A Welfare Check and a Voting Card - Motor Voter Law Editorial


EditorialA Welfare Check and a Voting CardPublished: August 9, 2010 in the New York TImes

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the motor-voter law, is well-known for making it possible to register to vote at state motor vehicle offices. However, the law also required states to allow registration at offices that administer food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, disability assistance and child health programs. States were enthusiastic about the motor-vehicle section of the law, and millions of new voters got on the rolls while getting a driver’s license. But registration at public assistance offices proved far less popular.

In part, that was because of additional paperwork at those offices, but in many states, Republican officials did not want to provide easy entry to the voting rolls for low-income people whom they considered more likely to vote Democratic. The Bush administration devoted its attention to seeking out tiny examples of voter fraud and purging people from the rolls in swing states. It did little to enforce the motor-voter law despite years of complaints from civic groups and Democratic lawmakers.

In April, however, President Obama’s Justice Department sent the states a set of guidelines making it clear that it expected full compliance with the public-assistance office section of the law — the first time in the 15-year history of the motor-voter law that the Justice Department has explained what kinds of offices are covered and what procedures are to be used. The guidelines make it clear that people applying for benefits must not only be offered the chance to register but must be given help in filling out the forms if they ask. If states do not comply voluntarily, lawsuits are likely to follow.

The administration will undoubtedly be accused of acting in a self-serving political way by making it easier for more Democrats to vote. The effort may have that effect. But it is worth remembering that the recession has brought millions of new people to food stamp and other welfare offices in the last two years, many of whom may not be traditional Democrats. In addition, government offices are much more likely to provide reliable registrations than Acorn or other advocacy groups that were widely accused of fraudulent sign-ups in the last cycle. Welfare offices generally have extensive methods of verifying identities in order to provide benefits, and it is illegal to provide false records there.

But the best reason to applaud the Justice Department’s new posture is that it will bring more voters into public life. When advocacy groups sued Ohio and Missouri to force their public assistance offices into complying, huge groups of new voters surged onto the rolls — more than 100,000 in Ohio, and more than 200,000 in Missouri. Nationwide enforcement by the Justice Department could add millions more. The more people who have access to the ballot, the better the country will be.