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30 years after the NVRA, we're still fighting for voting rights

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill.

Thirty years ago, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed with bipartisan support to ensure that registering to vote would be easy, fair, and accessible. Decades later, the right to vote and WHO should be allowed to vote is under attack. Signed into law in 1993, the NVRA is a landmark piece of legislation that transformed voter registration. The law came with great advancements, offering voter registration opportunities at state motor vehicle agencies and other designated federal, state, or nongovernmental offices. More important, the NVRA made it easier for people to register to vote and protect voters from being purged from the voter rolls. Within its first year of implementation, more than 30 million people submitted voter registration applications or updated their registrations through methods made possible by the NVRA, according to Election Assistance Commission data compiled by Demos.

The League of Women Voters was instrumental in the passage of the NVRA, leading a grassroots campaign that engaged a coalition of groups to pass the law. For 30 years, the League has been a chief enforcer of the law through legal advocacy which has paved the way for states to increase voter access through automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and pre-registration.

Today, there is a coordinated and concerted effort by some politicians to make voter registration, and voting, as difficult as possible, particularly for certain communities. 

We’ve seen states impose barriers to registration, especially those where people with past felony convictions have had their voting rights restored. Florida, for example, has notoriously taken great pains to make voting as difficult as possible after more than 65 percent of voters supported an initiative to re-enfranchise people with past felony convictions. Now in Florida,the voter registration form does not clarify eligibility for voters who have had their rights restored, which violates the NVRA. And similarly, in Louisiana, those who were removed from the voter rolls because of a past felony conviction cannot re-register when they become eligible unless they present additional documentation from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC), which in addition to being a difficult and lengthy process, violates the NVRA.  

Under the NVRA, states must follow basic minimum standards of informing potential voters of their eligibility and cannot require documentary proof beyond what is required of all voters. The League of Women Voters of Florida and the League of Women Voters of Louisiana, along with partners—both filed suits to challenge the violations and protect voters in their states.

The right to vote is one of the most basic promises of our democracy, yet we are seeing anti-voter provisions being passed in state legislatures around the country. According to a February report published by the Brennan Center for Justice, this year alone, lawmakers have pre-filed or introduced at least 150 restrictive voting bills in 32 states. These bills include restrictions on mail voting, stricter voter identification, and restrictions on early voting. These restrictions disproportionately impact voters of color and people with disabilities.  

The common thread here is the intent to deny certain people the right that all Americans should have — access to the ballot. Without this freedom, some Americans are only partially represented in our democracy, and that is unacceptable.

So, we must act now to protect voting rights. Two years ago, President Biden made a commitment to increasing voter access when he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to make registration and voting more accessible for millions of Americans. However, a progress report issued this year showed that most federal agencies have significant room for improvement in the implementation of this order. The report concluded that robust implementation could result in more than 3 million voter registration applications a year. For example, as highlighted in the report, the Department of Veterans Affairs can explore adding voter registration to its online benefits applications and assist veterans experiencing homelessness with registration and voting; the Bureau of Prisons can ensure that information about voting rights is consistently provided during incarceration and when individuals are released from custody; and the Department of Health and Human Services can take steps to ensure include voter registration in the application process. In essence, our elected leaders at the state and federal level must do more to ensure all eligible voters have equal access to make their voices heard in our democracy.

On this 30th anniversary of the NVRA, make no mistake: The fight for voting rights is far from over. 

Virginia Kase Solomón is the CEO of the LWVUS and serves on the boards of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the board of directors for the Project on Government Oversight and is a member of the National Election Task Force on Election Crises.