Missouri registers fewer poor to vote

David Goldstein // Published April 1, 2008 in Kansas City Star
The number of poor registered to vote has fallen sharply in Missouri and elsewhere because states are not doing their job, voter registration advocates said Tuesday.

They told a House hearing that many states’ public assistance offices are not making it easier for their clients to register, as federal law requires.

Voter registration through food stamps, Medicaid and such dropped nearly 80 percent in 10 years — from 2.6 million in 1995-96 to 540,000 in 2005-06, according to a study done by Project Vote and Demos, both nonpartisan and nonprofit.

“All Americans deserve an equal opportunity to register to vote and participate in our democracy,” testified Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote. “Many states, however, are undermining that promise and furthering inequalities.”

The study found state election and assistance officials often do not even know about the law, nor have their staffs been trained to carry it out. Many offices also lack proper voter materials.

In Missouri, the study found public assistance registrations sank 89 percent — 143,000 people in 1995-96, but less than 16,000 a decade later.

“We got a lot of people registered in those early years,” said Jandra Carter, special assistant to the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services. “There’s just a kind of natural point where those numbers will start to go down. There’s certainly no attempt to not comply with the law.”

She also said the offices had less “foot traffic” because more services were available online.

Kansas fared better. It registered 8,400 people through public assistance in 1995-96, and 8,100 two years ago.

The hearing was before the Elections Subcommittee of the House Administration Committee, which was considering the success of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, often called the “motor voter” law. It required states to offer voter sign–ups when people apply for or renew driver’s licenses.

Several states had falloffs as steep as Missouri. In North Carolina, it was 85 percent.

“We had assumed that the agencies’ voter registration was on autopilot and those agencies were doing the job they were supposed to do,” Johnnie McLean, of the North Carolina Board of Elections, told the hearing.

She said state aid workers probably never knew that helping clients register was a federal order and “not just another state agency asking them to do something else in their jobs.”

In 2006, North Carolina asked Demos and Project Vote to help it improve its compliance.

Voter registrations through public assistance agencies rose by 25,000 last year, McLean said.

To reach David Goldstein, call 202-383-6105 or send e-mail to dgoldstein@mcclatchydc.com.