National Voter Registration Act turns 20 as California expands its scope

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Today marked the 20th anniversary of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), signed into effect by President Clinton in 1993.

Though compliance wasn’t mandatory until 1995, this was a landmark piece of legislation that presented driver’s license and social services applicants with the opportunity to register or re-register to vote. Over the years, states have had the freedom to expand this access to other agencies, but because of its initial affiliation with DMVs, it became known as the “Motor Voter” Act.

“For the past 20 years, NVRA has ensured that information about registering to vote is added to the conversations millions of Californians have with DMV, military recruitment offices, public assistance agencies, and agencies serving persons with disabilities,” said Gail Pellerin, former head of the California Association of County Election Officials and current Santa Cruz County Clerk.

Just last week in California, Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced that California’s new health insurance exchange, Covered California, would be added to the list of NVRA agencies, dramatically expanding the pool of potential new registrants. Pellerin called this a “vital bridge between our citizens and the opportunity to register to vote.”

In a country where many take the right to vote for granted, or at least assume that it is automatic, the success of the NVRA has been far-reaching. There is much to be said for streamlining and removing barriers to access across the social and income spectrums. However, we shouldn’t take continued momentum here for granted either.

“As we celebrate the success of the Act, it is also a time to assess our current processes and to embrace further modernization of our voter registration processes,” said Dean Logan, the Los Angeles County Clerk.

“This is a priority area of discussion within the Future of California Elections (FOCE) collaboration. The recent implementation of online voter registration in California demonstrated the impact and efficiency gained from simplifying and expanding access to voter registration.  California is positioned well to lead in this regard while protecting voters’ personal data and ensuring the integrity of our voter rolls.”

Lori Shellenberger, Project Director of the ACLU of California Voting Rights Project, shares Logan’s cautious optimism on the success while identifying areas for furthering the NVRA’s success.

“Due to the passage of time and the lack of enforcement, the goals of the NVRA have yet to be realized. One in four eligible Americans – and that means one in four eligible Californians – are  still unregistered to vote,” Shellenberger said.

But she does laud the state both for Secretary Bowen’s announcement last week as well as last year’s passage of SB 35, which “codified NVRA best practices that have sparked new registrations at public assistance agencies across the state.”

As Logan mentioned, one such group working to continue this momentum is the Future of California Elections, of which California Forward is a proud partner.

“I believe FOCE will be the force that restores California to being a leader on election-related issues including voter registration, voting access for persons with disabilities, outstanding language assistance services, voting system standards, and viable voting options for all our citizens,” said Pellerin.

All of the above issues are ones that the FOCE works tirelessly to promote. The FOCE will continue to be at the forefront of the current renewed fervor to ensure that the goals of the NVRA are not lost in the passage of time and come to fruition quickly and in a manner that involves all Californians in the Democratic process.


Christopher Nelson

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