“We Have It…Let’s Use It:” Enforcing the Motor Voter Law

Guest Commentary

Volume CIII, No. 12December, 2003

Eric Gioia

In the spring of 1993, thirty years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, President Clinton signed into law what we now know as the Motor Voter Law. This law enables citizens to register to vote at the time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. By offering people greater opportunities to register to vote, the Motor Voter Law has been extremely successful; in its first year of full implementation alone, more than 11 million citizens registered to vote or updated their voting addresses.

New York City needs to be more pro-voter.

Unfortunately, the Motor Voter Law’s impact is limited in New York City because less than 50 percent of city residents have driver’s licenses. Recognizing this fact, the City Council passed the Pro-Voter Law of 2000, which supplemented the Motor Voter Law by requiring certain city agencies and all Community Boards to distribute voter registration forms to all individuals who apply for public services, renew or recertify their applications for services, or simply wish to change their address.

By requiring that voter registration cards be available in almost every instance where citizens interact with city government, the law was meant to bring more people into the democratic process. As Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, I wanted to see if the city was properly implementing the Pro-Voter Law and doing its best to help New Yorkers take a more active role in their government.

Unfortunately, the results of our recent investigation reveal that the city is failing dramatically in this fundamental responsibility, resulting in the disenfranchisement of millions of potential voters. Council investigators conducted anonymous surveys to determine the availability of voter registration forms at 99 locations throughout the five boroughs, including all 59 Community Board offices.

We found that only 47 of the 99 sites offered voter registration material to the public. That means that 53 percent of offices we surveyed are not complying with the Pro-Voter Law, a stunning proportion when you consider how much time has passed since the legislation was enacted. Even more disappointing is that workers at 40 percent of the sites not in compliance with the law told investigators that their offices had never carried voter registration forms.

New York City has over six million potentially eligible New Yorkers, of whom more than two million are not registered to vote. As these numbers show, much work remains to be done. The Pro-Voter Law of 2000 was designed to be a simple, cost-effective way to bring more people into the democratic process, and all city agencies need to implement the law as it was intended.

Every time in our nation’s history when we have removed barriers to voting – whether for women, African Americans, or for those challenged by disabilities – our democracy has taken a giant step forward. Proper implementation of the Pro-Voter Law would be a giant step forward for the millions of disenfranchised New Yorkers.

In addition to calling for the implementation of the current law, I am introducing legislation to mandate that every high school student be given a voter registration card upon graduation. Every time a graduating senior is given a diploma in New York City, they will be handed a voter registration form as well.

Around the world, people risk their lives every day to secure their freedom and to fight for the kind of democracy that we cherish as Americans. The right to vote is the keystone of our democracy. We need to do everything we can to ensure that in this country, and in our city, an election reflects the will of the people – not just their ability to navigate bureaucracy. We saw in the last presidential election that votes do count, and as Americans, we cannot afford to spare a single one.

Eric Gioia represents Woodside, Sunnyside, Long Island City, Astoria and Maspeth in the New York City Council.

Local 802 members can get information on registering to vote by visiting Heather Beaudoin on the fifth floor of the union or by calling her at ext. 176.