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Reminiscing: 22 Years after the National Voter Registration Act

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On May 20, 1993, I sat with current and former LWVUS presidents and lobbyists and watched President Bill Clinton as he signed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) into law. The legislation, also known as Motor Voter, was the second bill that President Clinton signed after taking office and a significant victory for the League of Women Voters. Then LWVUS president Becky Cain stood with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, bill sponsors Representatives Al Swift and John Conyers and Senators Wendell Ford and Mark Hatfield, along with the heads of our partner organizations, including the NAACP and Human SERVE on the South Lawn of the White House. The crowd of 500 in the audience included long-time allies from the voting rights community, the civil rights community, labor unions and the disability community.

Of course, the stroke of the pen and the resulting celebrations were the easy part – the five years leading up to it was the challenge. Building on a voter registration law used in Washington state designed to streamline and make voter registration procedures uniform, the League of Women Voters, in 1988, approached members of Congress to consider a federal bill that, like the Washington state bill, would provide voter registration opportunities to individuals at Departments of Motor Vehicles and federal agencies that provide public assistance. Representative Al Swift of Washington was a strong ally, but originally there were no sponsors in the Senate. With the doggedness and tenacity that the League is known for, League lobbyists approached Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky and Chair of the Senate Rules Committee which had jurisdiction over voter registration legislation. Ford was initially hesitant to take on sponsorship of the legislation, but after continued pressure from our lobbyists and with a helpful push from our equally determined grassroots network, he agreed to take the lead on Motor Voter. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon agreed to cosponsor and we were off and running. All three levels of the League, led by then-president Nancy Neuman, lobbied non-stop to get their members of Congress to support the NVRA.

Initial support for the bill in Congress was strong and bipartisan with both Majority Whip Tony Coelho and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich as original cosponsors.  In 1989, the legislation passed the House, but not the Senate. But the League kept at it: new LWVUS president Susan Lederman testified before Congress urging passage of the legislation and our Lobby Corps blanketed Congressional offices with materials advocating for passage. Year after year, League supporters pressed their members of Congress to cosponsor and support Motor Voter. In 1991, the legislation successfully passed both Houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by President George H.W. Bush.

Throughout the years, we were not alone in this fight. A Motor Voter coalition housed at LWVUS and co-chaired by the League and NAACP met year after year to strategize and lobby Congress. Lobbyists for AARP, every civil rights group, disability groups and unions showed up week after week, month after month. Organizations that supported the youth vote, in particular Rock the Vote, were enthusiastic coalition partners and many rock groups of the early nineties lent their support to the effort. League members who were used to lobbying for Motor Voter and conducting voter registration efforts in very traditional venues found themselves doing the same at rock concerts, including the inaugural Lollapalooza tour in 1991.

After the bill signing, someone in the crowd noted how lucky Motor Voter supporters were to have the new President signing their bill into law “after only four months in office.” I was instead reminded of the Thomas Jefferson quote “I find the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” The National Voter Registration Act was a great example of how the League of Women Voters works diligently to accomplish tangible improvements in the lives of Americans. We're often so busy looking for new ways to improve our elections systems, we don't always pause to remember our victories over the past 95 years and Motor Voter was unquestionably one of those victories.

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