Help America Vote Act (HAVA): An Explainer

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Help America Vote Act (HAVA) - Democracy Explainer

What is the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)?

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was designed to reform the election infrastructure and systems across the country. While the bill was introduced into Congress earlier in the year, it addressed many of the issues raised by the controversial 2000 Presidential Election. As a result, support grew for the bill which was passed and eventually signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

Why was HAVA needed?

Through powers granted by the Constitution, states largely set voting policies and oversee election administration, while clerks and administrators at county and municipal governments administer elections at the local level. Until the 1970s, election administrators were not able to easily share information between one another to learn and improve elections.

Through the Federal Election Campaign Act, Congress established the National Clearinghouse on Election Administration “for the compilation of information and review of procedures with respect to the administration of Federal elections.” The Clearinghouse was organized into six areas: research; information; public speaking; election legislation; voting system standards; and voting accessibility. The passage of the NVRA added developing and maintaining a national mail voter registration form, as well as submitting a biennial survey report to Congress on the impact of the NVRA and changes in voter registration statistics.

While the Federal Election Campaign Act and National Voter Registration Act made great strides toward improved election infrastructure, especially general accessibility of elections, more reform was needed. The controversial 2000 Presidential Election helped highlight some of these additional areas of needed reform, such as accessibility of polling centers, viability of old voting machines, availability of information on voting, as well as the ability to cast a ballot itself. The Help America Vote Act helped address many of these election-related issues.

What did HAVA do?

HAVA established program requirements that states must implement, including:

  • Provisional Voting: Before provisional voting was an option, if a voter showed up to the polls and was told they were not on the voter rolls, they would be turned away. The voter would not be able to vote and had little or no recourse. HAVA required states to make another option available to voters – the provisional ballot. More information on provisional voting is below.
  • Voting Information: HAVA required election officials to provide “voting information” to the public. The law required information be posted at each polling location on election day and defined “voting information” to include:
    • Sample ballots
    • Election information, such as the election day date, polling place hours, and instructions on how to vote, including instructions on the provisional ballot
    • Instructions for mail-in voters
    • Instructions for first time voters
    • Voting rights information, such as the right to cast a provisional ballot
    • General information about prohibited behavior
  • Updated and Upgraded Voting Equipment: States were required to “improve the quality, reliability, accuracy, affordability, and security of voting equipment”, including implementing at least one fully accessible voting machine in each polling location. They also required that all polling locations that used punch card or lever voting machines replace those machines, as ballots marked with punch cards or levers were the main cause of controversy for the 2000 Presidential Election.
  • Statewide Voter Registration Databases: Before HAVA, states were not required to have one, centralized list of all registered voters in the state, which meant that registration lists got messy and were harder to track and maintain. With the implementation of statewide voter registration lists:
    • Voters are less likely to be removed from the rolls accidentally;
    • It is easier for voters to check their registration status; and 
    • Eligible voters can more easily be added to the official list of registered voters.
  • Voter Identification Procedures: HAVA established a nationwide identification requirement for folks registering to vote, requiring that registrants supply either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number. This requirement helped ensure that all registered voters are legally eligible to vote. The act also established a requirement for first-time voters who registered by mail (and who have otherwise not proven their identity) to show voter identification when voting at the polls. In future elections, these voters would not be required by federal law to show an ID, although their state may require it.
  • Administrative Complaint Procedures: With this new requirement, voters were newly allowed to file formal complaints with election officials on election related matters.

In addition to setting requirements, HAVA provided federal funding and assistance to states to help them in meeting these requirements, such as grants to upgrade voting machines. To allocate federal grants and to support and ensure states are compliant with HAVA regulations, the law also established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent and bipartisan federal commission.

How did HAVA requirements improve elections for the average voter?

  • Provisional Ballots: Before HAVA, there was no way to cast a ballot if you showed up on election day only to learn that you were not on the list of registered voters. Now, voters can cast provisional ballots, which are ballots that are reviewed after the polls close to determine whether or not the voter was, in fact, eligible to vote. This change alone led to fewer voters being turned away at the polls, and therefore, more people making their voices heard.
  • Accessibility: The passing of HAVA also introduced the requirement for polling places to have at least one accessible voting machine, allowing voters with disabilities better access to cast their ballot. People with disabilities make up 1/6th of the electorate, and are one of the largest voting blocs in our country, meaning that this requirement made voting more possible for millions of eligible voters! HAVA also provided funding to states to implement more accessible voting options for those who do not speak English as their first language.
  • Reliability: After the controversy of the 2000 Presidential Election, it was important to regain voters’ trust in the reliability and validity of elections in the U.S. With the passage of HAVA, voters were able to watch as changes were made that improved our election infrastructure, such as the removal of punch card and lever voting machines, the creation of administrative complaint procedures, and new guidelines for voter identification.
  • Preparing Young People to Vote: HAVA authorized the Election Assistance Commission to provide funding to the National Student and Parent Mock Election, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, which creates simulations of elections for students and their parents to learn more about the democratic process. This program teaches young people integral information about their future civic duty, creating space for students to ask questions, cast a ballot, and learn more about how an election is run. Learning this information before reaching adulthood makes young people far more likely to regularly vote once they reach voting age.
  • Recruiting Students as Poll Workers: HAVA also established a Help America Vote College Program, which funds and encourages students in college to serve their communities as poll workers, creating another way for young people to get more involved in our democracy. The program diversifies the poll worker population while also recruiting college students who tend to be better skilled at confronting new voting technology and the unique challenges it presents at polling places.

Beyond HAVA

While the Help America Vote Act has significantly improved elections across the country, its passage was more than 20 years ago, during which time the internet has become ever-present and domestic and foreign attacks to interfere in elections have increased. Moreover, the 2020 Presidential Election held amidst a global pandemic exposed many ongoing vulnerabilities in our elections. More investment and reform is needed to continue to ensure elections are free, fair and secure.

Published December 19, 2022.