Today on voter registration day, the Biden administration has a crucial opportunity to promote voting access. This past March, the Biden administration issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to put together plans to promote voting access through voter registration. The federal agencies will submit their plans to the White House this month. Especially with the innumerable attacks on the right to vote — more than 400 anti-voter bills have been introduced in 48 states during the 2021 legislative session — the Biden administration must ensure federal agencies propose and implement plans to provide robust and effective voter registration services.
The purpose of the Executive Order on Promoting Voting Access is to “protect and promote the exercise of the right to vote, eliminate discrimination and other barriers to voting, and expand access to voter registration and accurate election information” and to “ensure that registering to vote and the act of voting be made simple and easy for all those eligible to do so.” The order encourages federal agencies to embrace the original intent of the National Voter Registration Act, which dictates that the federal government be actively involved in providing voter registration services. When enacting the NVRA, Congress declared it the “duty of the federal, state, and local governments to promote the exercise of [the] right [to vote].”
Congress passed the NVRA in 1993 to address the discriminatory role voter registration plays in our elections. In the last 25 years, the NVRA has helped address this discrimination and close gaps in registration rates, particularly by requiring states to offer registration opportunities to eligible individuals who interact with state and local agencies such as DMVs and public assistance agencies. But rates of registration among Black and Brown people and low-income people are still disproportionately lower, preventing them from exercising their fundamental right to vote. President Biden’s executive order presents a great opportunity to better achieve the goals and intent of the NVRA by engaging the federal government’s many existing programs to offer eligible individuals a meaningful opportunity to register to vote.
Still, the executive order does not replace the need for federal legislation to protect the right to vote. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act was weakened by the Supreme Court. The court’s 2013 decision struck down the formula used to identify which states were required to obtain prior approval from the Justice Department, gutting the heart of this landmark legislation. Then, this summer, the Supreme Court substantially weakened another part of the VRA in Brnovich v. DNC, making it more difficult for voting rights advocates to challenge racially discriminatory voting laws in court.
Biden’s executive order does not rehabilitate the VRA or address the lack of pre-clearance for states with prior records of voting discrimination — that must be addressed by Congress. We urge Congress to act now to cement the legacy of the VRA and protect the rights of all Americans by passing the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act. In the meantime, amidst voting rights attacks happening across the country, the administration’s executive order provides an unprecedented opportunity for the federal government to provide meaningful opportunities to register to vote, and expand access to the ballot for millions of Americans.
In issuing the order, the Biden administration demonstrated its strong commitment to ensuring unfettered access to the ballot. But it must see this step through. Given the lack of Congressional action thus far protecting the right to vote, it’s crucial that the administration implement this order expansively and comprehensively. Ensuring our federal agencies do all they can to expand access to voter registration is not only easy, it’s the right thing to do.