Under what circumstances do civil rights laws get enforced? Why do authorities seem to protect certain civil rights, while ignoring others?

These are the big questions that Douglas Hess ’91, assistant professor of political science, seeks to answer in his research on the National Voter Registration Act.

The NVRA was enacted in 1993 to make voter registration easier and more uniform across states. It 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. This poses problems for equal access to representation: tens of millions of potential voters are currently unregistered.

Hess recently received a discretionary grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York to study effective, low-cost strategies for states to better implement the NVRA.

“A lot of states don’t implement the law very well. 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,” Hess says.

Hess will conduct his research through field experiments, statistical analyses of agency data, and case studies.

Hess has also found ways to integrate Grinnell students into his research. In fall 2013, James Dowell ’15 read legal settlements between states and civil rights groups concerning the NVRA. Then he coded them for variations in content. In summer 2014, Ryan Hautzinger ’15 and Chris Lee ’15 will be working on a related Mentored Advanced Project.

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