It's not sexy, but it's a good way to fight inequality.

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The Voting Law That's Being Ignored

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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A few weeks ago, a Massachusetts government agency you've probably never heard of settled a lawsuit over what kinds of forms it has to hand out to people who apply for welfare. That might sound dull, but it's the backdrop for a fight against growing political and economic inequality.

The lawsuit, brought by a coalition of nonprofit voting-rights groups, charged that the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance was in violation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires agencies that offer public assistance to help their clients register to vote. The coalition claimed the department wasn't handing out voter-registration forms or taking other steps to ensure that people who wanted to register did.

To appreciate why that matters, consider that Americans are less likely to cast ballots than people in almost every other developed country, and the poorest Americans are about half as likely to vote as the wealthiest. 

That reduces the incentive for politicians in either party to protect or expand programs that help low-income voters. Without closing the turnout gap, meaningful progress against inequality is hard.

QuickTake Income Inequality

How attainable is the goal of boosting turnout? Not as hard as you might think. The key appears to be making it easier to register. For the population as a whole, those earning from $10,000 to $15,000 were 52 percent less likely to vote in 2012 as those who made $150,000 or more. Among registered voters, that gap shrank to 16 percent.

One interpretation of those numbers is self-selection: Low-income Americans could be less likely to register in the first place because they're less interested in casting a ballot. By that reading, those who want to vote get registered, and the rest don't.

But people respond to incentives, so someone's proclivity to vote also depends on the cost of doing so -- starting with getting registered. That was the point of the National Voter Registration Act, which gets called the Motor Voter law because it lets people register to vote when they apply for a driver's license.

QuickTake Voting Rights

Because poorer Americans are less likely to get a license, Congress also mandated that offices that provide public assistance -- welfare, food stamps, disability benefits and Medicaid, to name a few -- help people register. That means not just offering forms, but also helping people fill them out. By law, if somebody doesn't want the office's help to register, they need to say so in writing.

It was a good idea. In 1995 and 1996, public assistance offices registered 2.5 million people to vote, according to federal data compiled by Governing, a publication that covers state and local policy. Then things started to fall apart: In 1997-1998, the number fell to 1.5 million; by 2005-2006, it was about 500,000. Those figures have crept up, but by 2011-2012, the last period for which figures are available, registration by public-assistance offices was still about 25 percent below its 1997-1998 peak.

This is where groups such as Demos, Project Vote and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law come in. In 2006, the three groups sued Ohio, which registered just 4.8 percent of its public-assistance clients to vote that year and the year before. The coalition won that case, won or settled lawsuits against six other states, and negotiated agreements with 12 others. They're now in talks with six more states, including litigation that's pending in Nevada.

The process works. By 2009-2010, after the three settled their suit against Ohio, the share of voter registration applications coming from the state's public-assistance offices had more than doubled, and is now the second-highest nationally. In Missouri, which the groups sued in 2008, public-assistance offices went from registering 8,000 voters a year before a judge's ruling to 130,000 in the year after. That state's registration rate for those offices is now sixth-highest nationwide.

There's still a lot to do. The chart below shows the percentage of voter registration applications received through public-assistance offices for the five states with the highest and lowest rates of registration. There's a 160-fold difference between Michigan (the lowest-scoring state, at 0.1 percent of recipients) and New York (the highest, at 16 percent). Ten states got less than 1 percent of their voter applications through public-assistance offices in 2011-2012.

Obviously, getting more low-income Americans registered to vote when they apply for welfare and other benefits isn't enough by itself to close the turnout gap. But compared with more sweeping ideas, such as mandatory voting, it has the distinct benefit of being possible. Best of all, it's already the law; all that's needed is to get more states to follow it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net