In 1993, to make voter registration easier and more uniform across states, Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires states to include voter registration when qualifying voters apply for social services or driver’s licenses. Two decades later, however, the NVRA is implemented unevenly from state to state, posing problems for equal access to representation. Tens of millions of potential voters are currently unregistered.

Douglas Hess ’91, an assistant professor of political science, recently received a discretionary grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York to study effective, low-cost strategies for states to better implement the NVRA. Hess will work alongside two colleagues from the University of the Maryland and the University of Notre Dame, as well as with Grinnell College students. The grant will last for eighteen months, starting in March 2014.

About This Research

“A lot of states don’t implement the [NVRA] law very well,” Hess said. “Some parts of it they just flat out ignore, and even in states that try to implement it well, some of the counties don’t do it right. So we’re looking at ways to enforce the law.”

There are several things that make it difficult for the federal government to enforce the NVRA. First, there are several thousand local election jurisdictions in the United States, making consistency difficult. Further, although Congress passes federal laws (including the NVRA), those laws are implemented by officials at the county level, and they don’t always use best practices. Finally, given the distance between federal officials and local officials, oversight of federal laws can be difficult. In the case of the NVRA, some localities and entire states had stopped complying with the law, but federal officials had not noticed.

Hess’ research will be conducted through field experiments, statistical analyses of agency data, and case studies.

Since 1994, Hess has been working on the NVRA in various research, consulting and advocacy capacities for nonprofits such as Project Vote. Nonprofits like these often take up the role of watchdog for NRVA enforcement.

Hess directed the NRVA Implementation Project at Project Vote from 1994 to 1996. “We won all those lawsuits [to enforce the NVRA] in the beginning of the project and campaigns,” he said. “And then for several years we all just assumed it was going all right, that implementation would just be on autopilot. But then after the 2000 elections…we realized in fact that actually a lot of states had just stopped doing large parts of the law, because no one was enforcing it any more,” stated Hess.

For Hess, this research is not only about voting rights.

“The larger question is, What is it about enforcement of civil rights laws that make them work? Why do some civil rights laws not get enforced?” Hess said.

“Why do some states do it and other states don’t? Why do some counties do it and other counties not do it? ... What does it take to get a lower-level official to follow congressional law, since Congress can’t maintain oversight of every single official?”

Hess has also found ways to integrate Grinnell students into his research. Of his two research assistants, one is working to help collect and code both qualitative and quantitative data on the law and its effectiveness. Hess is considering having students do summer research projects on the law as well.

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