The Fight for the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA): "It's Now Up to Us to See That It Gets Done"

In this photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, campaign volunteer Barbara Smalley-McMahan, clutches her pad while attempting
In this photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, campaign volunteer Barbara Smalley-McMahan, clutches her pad while attempting to register voters in downtown Raleigh, N.C. Dozens of volunteers armed with clipboards and voter registration forms gather at President Barack Obama's field office here every day. Their mission: Fan out across the city seeking new voters in this rapidly growing state. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Last week, we announced that the League filed an amicus brief in the critical voting rights case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council (ITC). The case, which will be argued before the Supreme Court on Monday, March 18, could potentially gut the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), legislation the League helped pass in 1993. Commonly known as the "Motor Voter Act," the NVRA streamlined voter registration, making it easier for citizens to register to vote, and protecting against state restrictions on voter registration for federal elections.

If the Court rules against the NVRA, states would be free to pass laws that could restrict voter registration activities and thereby prevent eligible citizens from registering to vote.

The League began working on what would become the NVRA in 1988 in response to the widely divergent and confusing array of state laws that hindered voter registration. In 1989, the League began work to draft national legislation to require states to provide voter registration opportunities when citizens obtain a driver's license or seek government services at other public agencies, as well as provide for voter registration by mail, which is integral to citizen-led voter registration drives. Because of its importance in protecting the vote, the NVRA became a key priority of the work of both LWVUS and Leagues across the country. Members contacted their members of Congress in support of it, and even descended upon Capitol Hill to advocate for the legislation.

When the legislation that would eventually become the National Voter Registration Act was first introduced in 1989, the League was the only public interest group supporting it. The League launched a lobbying and media campaign, and in 1990 the national League helped create a national coalition to support the NVRA. The coalition, co-chaired first with the ACLU and later with the NAACP, included Human SERVE/100% VOTE, MALDEF, the AFL-CIO, Rock the Vote, Disabled and Able to Vote and the National Urban League, among more than 60 others. Coalition members activated their own memberships, lobbied Congress, compiled essential information on voter registration in the states and provided technical assistance to members of Congress.

Throughout the campaign to pass the NVRA, LWVUS Presidents Nancy Neuman (1986-1990), Susan Lederman (1990-1992) and Becky Cain (1992-1998) testified before Congress in support of the legislation and consulted closely with its congressional leaders, Rep. Al Swift (D WA), Senator Wendell Ford (D KY) and Senator Mark Hatfield (R OR). Other national, state and local League leaders also spoke to groups across the country and worked to keep the need for the legislation in the public spotlight.

Throughout the campaign, we endured a number of setbacks, including being passed by both chambers of Congress in 1992 only to be vetoed by President George H.W. Bush. But in 1993, the years of concerted effort led by the League and the national coalition finally paid off. In January, the League helped reintroduce the NVRA legislations, congressional leaders vowed to make it a top priority, and newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton called it the nation's "newest civil rights bill." A few short months later, on May 20, 1993, LWVUS President Becky Cain stood behind President Clinton as he signed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) into law.

"The victory we celebrate," said Clinton, "is but the most recent chapter in the overlapping struggles of our nation's history to enfranchise women and minorities, the disabled and the young, with the power to affect their own destiny, and our common destiny, by participating fully in our democracy." Clinton went on to call the League a "fighter for freedom" in its efforts to bring the bill to his desk and presented League President Cain with a pen used to sign the historic legislation.

At the bill-signing ceremony, Clinton praised the NVRA supporters for what they had accomplished, but he also issued a challenge. "When we leave here today, we ought to say 'Every year, from now on, we're going to have more registered voters and more people voting.' We're going to make the system work. The law empowers us to do it. It's now up to us to see that it gets done."

Today, as the Supreme Court prepares to review Arizona v. ITC and potentially overturn key parts of the NVRA, these words ring truer than ever. The case puts the League's work of running independent voter registration drives at risk. The NVRA streamlined the myriad state laws that hindered voter registration and citizen-led registration drives, and a decision against the NVRA would leave the voter registration process vulnerable to new forms of political manipulation.

Watch this video to learn more about the League's work to pass the NVRA, which has provided the most effective guarantee of the right to vote since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.