Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 8 May-June 2001

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National Voter Registration Act Implementation Survey

Executive Summary
January, 2001

Prepared by Kay Schriner, Ph.D.
Research Fellow
Fulbright Institute of International Relations
University of Arkansas
722 W. Maple
Fayetteville, AR 72701

Americans with disabilities are less likely to register and vote than nondisabled Americans. Several recent studies (e.g., National Organization on Disability, 1998; Schur & Kruse, 2000; Shields, Schriner, & Schriner, 1998) indicate that the registration rate among persons with disabilities is about 15 percentage points lower than among nondisabled citizens. And the voting rate is about 20 percentage points lower among individuals with disabilities.

In recognizing that many individuals with disabilities (and other disadvantaged groups) are not registered to vote, and thus cannot participate in American elections, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993 to make registration easier for citizens and to increase turnout in elections. Specifically, the NVRA is intended to (a) "establish procedures that will increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal office"; (b) "make it possible for Federal, State, and local governments to implement the Act in a manner that enhances the participation of eligible citizens as voters in elections for Federal office"; (c) "to protect the integrity of the electoral process"; and (d) "to ensure that accurate and current voter registration rolls are maintained."

The NVRA requires that "all offices in the State that provide State-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities" be designated as voter registration agencies. In addition, a state may designate other agencies serving people with disabilities as voter registration agencies. Each voter registration agency must offer registration to its consumers and provide assistance in completing the voter registration card. The offer to register must be made at application for services and with each recertification, renewal, or change of address.

To date, there has been little effort made to establish to what extent the NVRA is being implemented in disability service agencies.

The Empowerment Project at the University of Arkansas, funded by the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research, recently completed a survey of private and public disability agencies regarding the implementation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA; also referred to as the Motor Voter Bill).

The Empowerment Project conducted a survey of private and public agencies regarding NVRA implementation. The agencies surveyed included the following:

State mental health and state developmental disability agencies, using a list of state agency directors obtained from the National Association of State Mental Health Programs (NASMHP) and the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services (NASDDDS). A total of 36 responses were received from the 102 surveys mailed, for a response rate of 35%. Seventeen surveys were from mental health agencies and 19 from developmental disabilities agencies.

[We also requested that we be granted permission by the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) to conduct a similar mail survey with state vocational rehabilitation agency directors. However, in a letter dated January 24, 2000, Denise Placido (chair of the CSAVR Research Committee), denied such permission. The letter stated that "CSAVR cannot endorse or support this survey request, as it does not meet the criteria for approval." These criteria include "whether the issue is one of significant concern to the state-federal rehabilitation program . . . "

The CSAVR Research Committee concluded that "Since the primary mission of Vocational Rehabilitation agencies is the delivery of services resulting in employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities, NVRA activities are not a priority for research for the state-federal rehabilitation program." The letter also cited the length of the survey and the request for information that is "not readily available" or could be "obtained directly from RSA" as reasons for the denial.]

Private non-profit agencies, using a random sample of agencies accredited by CARF. Of the 1183 surveys sent to agencies, 196, or about 17%, were returned. The low response rate should be considered when drawing conclusions from these data. We have attempted to avoid drawing conclusions when doing so is unwarranted.

Survey Results
Private agencies
Findings from the survey of private agencies include:
  • 31% of responding agencies have not heard of the NVRA.
  • 55% of responding agencies do not believe they are required by law to implement the provisions of the NVRA.
  • 35% of responding agencies said that NVRA implementation was a low priority.
  • 69% of responding agencies do not offer registration at intake.
  • 58% of responding agencies report having registered fewer than 1% of their consumers in the last year.
  • 100% of the agencies that were informed of their legal obligation to implement the NVRA by a state agency are attempting to implement NVRA requirements. This is the single best predictor of whether an agency will attempt to implement the NVRA.
  • The second best predictor of whether an agency is attempting to implement the NVRA is whether the agency has heard of the NVRA, from any source.
Public state agencies
Findings from the survey of public state agencies include:
  • Three developmental disabilities (DD) agencies and two mental health (MH) agencies said they were not required by law to implement the NVRA.
  • The majority of agencies reporting (14 of 16 DD agencies and 7 of 12 MH agencies) reported that NVRA implementation was not part of their primary system of consumer tracking.
  • Most state agencies indicated (either by telephone or on the returned survey) that they serve primarily to "pass through" service funds to community-based organizations, and thus have no direct responsibility for ensuring that registration services are offered to consumers of their services.
The results of this survey effort are somewhat difficult to interpret, given the relatively low response rates (particularly for public state agencies). It is unclear whether the agencies that did respond to this survey are representative of all agencies, or whether they are unusual in some way. However, there are some conclusions that can be drawn.

In the case of private CARF-accredited agencies, there are two primary conclusions to be drawn from this survey:
  • Educating agencies about their obligations under the law is an important step in ensuring that the NVRA is implemented.
  • The public state agencies that "pass through" funds to private agencies could play a significant role in this process by communicating with private agencies about their responsibilities for NVRA implementation.
In the case of public state agencies, the following conclusions can be drawn:
  • The obligations of public state agencies to implement the NVRA must be made clear to those agencies.
  • If public state agencies do not include NVRA implementation in their consumer tracking systems, it will difficult for the agencies to meet their oversight responsibilities with respect to community-based organizations receiving "pass through" funds.
Even acknowledging the low response rates for both the private and the public state agencies, this NVRA implementation survey suggests that there are implementation issues that need to be addressed. Both types of agencies participating in this study indicate that they are uncertain about their obligations under the act, and are not implementing the act to the extent that they could. Given the importance of registering people with disabilities to vote, it is imperative that action be taken to improve the implementation of the National Voter Registration Act among people with disabilities.

The good news is that the results also suggest that there are some steps - all relatively inexpensive and easy - that might be taken to improve the implementation of NVRA among disability agencies. These would focus on improving the awareness level about the obligations agencies have under the National Voter Registration Act; providing agency personnel with the information and training necessary for effective and efficient implementation; and strengthening the oversight of public state agencies with respect to NVRA implementation in agencies receiving state "pass through" funds.

Specifically, we would recommend that the following actions be taken:
  • Federal agencies (including the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the Federal Election Commission) should focus increased time and resources on implementing the National Voter Registration Act.

    This effort should include (a) establishing clear guidelines for disability service agencies (both public and private) to follow in implementing the NVRA, and (b) working with other organizations such as the associations of Secretaries of State and various disability groups to disseminate those guidelines.

    Guidelines for NVRA implementation should address the role of public state agencies in strengthening oversight with respect to NVRA implementation in agencies receiving state "pass through" funds.
  • The help of groups such as the National Association of State Mental Health Programs, the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities, and the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation should be enlisted to improve NVRA implementation.

    This assistance could include (a) agreeing to cooperate in the efforts initiated by federal agencies, (b) issuing position papers regarding the importance of NVRA implementation, and (c) providing time at organizational meetings for training in NVRA implementation.
  • The assistance of groups representing disability agencies in the private sector should also be enlisted, and the same assistance requested of them.
Many of the agencies we heard from - particularly the private CARF-accredited agencies - expressed a strong interest in knowing more about the NVRA and how it should be implemented in their agencies. Many private agencies said that receiving the survey in the mail was the first indication they had had that their agencies might not be fulfilling their obligations under the act. These agencies serve a large number of people with disabilities in every state in the nation, and many apparently are receptive to information and training about NVRA implementation.

The National Voter Registration Act is an important part of our nation's commitment to ensuring that democracy is accessible to all citizens. Most of the states require that voters register in advance of election day. To ensure that people with disabilities are among those who cast their votes in American elections, disability service agencies should make it a priority to register their consumers to vote. They should take immediate and ongoing steps to make sure that their consumers are properly registered. With appropriate guidance and support, these agencies can be a vigorous force in making democracy accessible.

National Organization on Disability. (1998). 1998 N.O.D./Harris survey of Americans with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author.

Schur, L., & Kruse, D.L. (2000). What determines voter turnout?: Lessons from citizens with disabilities. Social Science Quarterly, 81 (2), 571-587.

Shields, T., Schriner, K., & Schriner, K. (1998). The disability voice in American politics: Political participation of people with disabilities in the 1994 election. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 9 (2), 33-52.

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