National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA): An Explainer

Explainers: Voting Rights
National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) - Democracy Explainer

What is The National Registration Act of 1993?

Signed into law on May 20, 1993, by President Bill Clinton, the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the NVRA, revolutionized voter registration across the country establishing voter registration requirements and policies to facilitate those requirements. The NVRA required each state to:

It is because of the NVRA that eligible voters can register to vote at their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) earning the law the nickname “Motor Voter”.

Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton signing into law on May 20, 1993

It is also why eligible voters who submit an application by their state’s deadlines can vote in the upcoming election because it required states to process applications in a timely manner. The passage of the NVRA made registering to vote more accessible. 

Why is making voter registration more accessible important?

Voter registration is the first barrier to voting. Even with the NVRA and policies like online and automatic voter registrations in some states, approximately 25% of eligible voters remain unregistered to vote, according to 2020 U.S. Census data. The registration gap is greatest among young people, particularly young people of color, young Natives, young people with disabilities and young people from low-income backgrounds. Every year, millions of eligible voters find themselves unable to vote because they miss a registration deadline, do not update their registration, or are unsure how to register.

How did Rock the Vote contribute to the passage of the NVRA?

In the early 1990s, Rock the Vote launched a major national campaign to support the passage of the NVRA. We partnered with the Recording Industry Association of American, MTV, Rolling Stone, major artists and actors of the era, and elected leaders to record and broadcast PSAs, testify at Congressional hearings, and conduct public media interviews.  


Rock the Vote teamed up with alternative rock band R.E.M. to include “Dear Senator. I support the Motor Voter bill.” postcards in the CD sleeves of their Grammy Nominated “Out of Time” album. As a result, more than 100,000 postcards were sent to Congress in support of the NVRA.

Did the NVRA have any other impact?

Absolutely! The passage of the NVRA was monumental in several ways. It required each state to designate a chief state elections official who would oversee the requirements of the NVRA. Note, many Secretaries of State who oversee the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles are also the state’s election official meaning they are also in charge of the elections in that state.

The new law also ensured that any person who “intimidates, threatens or coerces any person for registering or voting” would face criminal penalties.

The NVRA also required states maintain accurate voter rolls and included important protections for voters, such as ensuring that voters could not be removed from voter rolls except under the following conditions: death, criminal conviction, mental incapacity, change in residence, or voter request. 

The law also guaranteed that voter’s personal information was not publicly disclosed. While voter information is allowed within the public record, the NVRA ensured that personal information would be protected. That means whether or not you vote is public record, but whom you vote for and your personal information like your social security number or driver’s license number are not.

As a federal law, did the NVRA apply to all states?

No. At the time of its signing, six states either did not have a registration requirement or offered same-day/election-day registration. As a result, these six states did not fall under the NVRA. These states included Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

How did The National Voter Registration Act set the path for voter registration today?

It wasn’t until the passage of the NVRA and the creation of a national voter registration form that registration could be streamlined across the nation. Three years after its passage, Rock the Vote created the first telephone voter registration system. In 1999, Rock the Vote was able to create the first Online Voter Registration platform before any state even offered online voter registration. 

Users’ information would be pre populated in a pdf of the national voter registration form. The pre-populated form was emailed to the user who also received the address of their state election official and instructions to print, sign and mail it. This gave third-party civic engagement organizations an efficient and effective way to support voter registration nationwide.

Rock the Vote has continued to innovate our Online Voter Registration platform, which has processed over 14 million registration applications to date.

The NVRA also paved the way for state-based policies that increase access to voter registration, such as:

Independently and combined, these policies are incredibly impactful in closing the voter registration gap, particularly among young people, and would not have been realistic without the NVRA.

This key piece of legislation maintains an important role in ensuring the rights of voters to this day, and, since its passage in the early 1990s, it has helped millions of Americans exercise their most fundamental right as citizens of this nation.

The Power of Federal Voting Rights Legislation

The National Voter Registration Act as a leading example of valuable federal voting rights legislation. It set fundamental standards and established processes to achieve those standards that ultimately promote democratic participation and protect voters.

To learn more about the NVRA, click here.