By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
The recession that impoverished millions of Americans is producing a side effect: new voters.
Lawsuits by voting rights groups in Missouri and Ohio have led hundreds of thousands of people to file voter registration applications at welfare agencies, as mandated by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, or the "motor voter" law. Cases pending in Indiana, New Mexico and other states, as well as new Justice Department guidelines, probably will boost those figures.
Voting rights advocates say millions of low-income people could be registered this way. A U.S. Election Assistance Commission report in 2007-08 showed 21 states registered less than 1% of voters at welfare offices. Only Vermont, Tennessee and New York registered more than 4% that way.
An increase could help President Obama and his party. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in June showed 55% of Americans with incomes less than $20,000 like Obama's performance, tied for his best showing among income groups.
Those numbers could influence elections. Nearly 90% of registered voters cast ballots in 2008, according to the Census Bureau. Republican John McCain won Missouri by 4,000 votes in 2008.
The Census Bureau says 71% of eligible Americans were registered to vote in 2008, but only 64% of those with family incomes less than $20,000 did so. "When you're on food stamps, your primary concern is where your next meal is going to come from," says Nicole Kovite of Project Vote, one of the litigants.
The 1993 law requires most states to offer voter registration at motor vehicles offices, social services agencies and other sites. More than 2.6 million people filled out voter registration applications at public aid offices in 1995-96, or 6.3% of all applicants. The number dropped below 1 million by 2007-08.
Donetta Davidson, who chairs the Election Assistance Commission, sees ample reason for the lawsuits. "I think these groups have a reason to holler 'foul,'" she says. "Things fall through the cracks, and you don't want to disenfranchise your voters."
Jason Torchinsky, a former Justice Department lawyer in the Bush administration, says liberal groups want welfare offices to replace the work of ACORN, a coalition of anti-poverty groups that disbanded this year after allegations of voter fraud.
"With the demise of ACORN, the left needs somebody to pick up that function," he says.