Bill Clinton signed the 1993 Motor Voter bill, mandating states to offer on-
the-spot voter registration at various government agencies, Republicans in
California and several other states sought to undermine the new law by
withholding critical funding and, later, by seeking court injunctions against
its implementation. Although these officials justified their actions by warning
that Motor Voter would increase voter fraud, partisan concerns may have been on
their minds. Since nonvoters tend to be poorer than voters, many conservatives
feared--just as many liberals hoped--that Motor Voter would produce a Democratic
bonanza at the polls.These attempts to subvert the National Voter Registration
Act, as Motor Voter is officially known, have failed in most cases. Although
several states still lag behind in implementation, today most Americans can
register to vote by mail or when they conduct the most routine government
business, from applying for a driver's license to receiving public assistance.
In addition, by shifting the responsibility for maintaining eligible voter lists
from individuals, parties, and campaigns to the states, Motor Voter removes
barriers to voting imposed 100 years ago--barriers that con tributed
significantly to the low levels of twentieth-century U.S. voter turnout and
unrepresentativeness of the electorate. No matter what the electoral impact
today, this achievement brings us closer to the norm of universal voter
registration typical of other industrial democracies. But those who believe that
Motor Voter will on its own increase turnout significantly are mistaken, as are
those who anticipate an automatic windfall for the Democratic Party. While the
law removes significant obstacles to participation, the precipitous decline in
turnout since the 1960s reflects a growing indifference to politics, not a lack
of access to the voting booth. In the short term at least, Motor Voter will make
the biggest dif ference to otherwise motivated citizens for whom registration is
a significant obstacle to voting: those who are under 30 or who move frequently,
not the poor. The former two groups' partisan orientation does not differ
substantially from that of the electorate as a whole. What's more, these new
voters will have a disproportionate impact in states where Democrats already
struggle--states like Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas, all of which have long
histories of restrictive registration laws.
The good news for progressives is that Motor Voter does offer political
strategists new opportunities to mo bilize nonvoters by making the rolls more
inclusive, creating more accurate lists of potential voters, and enrolling more
young people than at any time since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972. Yet the
prospects for major increases in turnout and energizing Democratic politics
hinge entirely on how--or, more precisely, on whether--orga nizers make use of
these new opportunities.
WHY PEOPLE DON'T VOTE
Political scientists attribute the ups and downs in voting be havior to changes
in the cost of voting to citizens (or their access to the resources to
incur these costs) and in the motivation of citizens to vote. On the one
hand, cumbersome registration procedures inhibit voting by imposing on
prospective participants costs of time, effort, attention, and, in some cases,
money. On the other hand, the effect of these costs on turnout depends on how
moti vated to vote people are in the first place: Do they identify with one of
the major parties? Do they believe government will respond to them? Are they
interested in a particular election? Do they think it matters who wins? Do they
think it will be close? And, most impor tant, is anyone mobiliz ing them to turn
In the early twentieth century, newly imposed voter registration procedures
(higher cost) combined with the reduced effectiveness of partisan mobilization
(lower motiva tion) to yield the first sharp de clines in U.S. voter turnout.
State legislatures enacted restrictive registration laws in an explicit attempt
to limit partisan mobilization of "undesirable" and "irresponsible"
elements. In the North, the targets were urban, mostly Democratic political
machines that drew electoral support from recent im migrants and their children
of voting age. Registration "reform" was packaged with other antiparty
measures. These included candidate selection by primary instead of nominating
convention as well as the use of the Australian ballot--the government-is sued
nonpartisan voting forms we use today--which replaced voting "tickets"
parties handed out to voters at the polls. In the South, voter registration was
packaged with Jim Crow laws including literacy tests, poll taxes, and "grandfather
clauses" that barred most African Americans--and many poor whites--from the
polls and effectively transformed the South into a one-party sys tem.
As a result of the effect of these "reforms" on partisan competition,
voter turnout in presidential elections plummeted from 79 percent of the
eligible voting-age popu lation in 1896 to just 49 percent in 1920. In the North
turnout declined from 86 percent to 55 percent between 1896 and 1920, while in
the South it fell from 57 percent to 22 percent. A southern post-Civil War peak
of 75 percent had been achieved in 1876, before the withdrawal of federal troops
in 1877. Although the 1920 electorate included women for the first time, the
citizens who voted were a wealthier, whiter, and more educated slice of the
public than before.
In the 1930s, however, despite restrictive registration procedures, intensive
new partisan efforts motivated increasing numbers of voters to turn out.
Beginning with Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith's mobilization of
urban Catholic voters in 1928 and continuing through the industrial-union drives
of the 1930s, turnout began to rise as the voting electorate became more broadly
representative. In the North, turnout climbed from a low of 55 percent in 1920
to a peak of 73 percent by 1940. In the South, turnout had fallen to 19 percent
by 1924 and did not begin to climb substantially until African Americans began
regaining the right to vote after World War II. Southern turnout reached 38
percent by 1952 and peaked at 52 percent in 1968. For the nation as a whole,
although nineteenth-century levels of turnout remained out of reach, a new peak
of 65 percent was reached by 1960.
Beginning in 1964, voter turnout again began to decline, but in a way strik
ingly different from that of the earlier part of the century. Although turnout
fell to 50.1 percent by 1988, it declined not as registration procedures were
tightened, but as they were liberalized. Beginning with federal restora
tion of voting rights to African Americans, many states enacted laws allowing "mail-in"
registration, expanded absen tee balloting, and adopted versions of what would
become the federal Motor Voter law. Government actions to reduce the cost of
voting were overwhelmed, however, by even sharper reduc tions in voter
motivation--a loss of motivation that originated in the political up heavals of
the 1960s and 1970s and was compounded by the development of new "capital
intensive" campaign technologies that tended to limit partisan mobilization
to those already most likely to vote. By 1992, the 54 percent of Americans with
family incomes over $30,000 a year cast 77 percent of the ballots.
Despite major partisan reg istration efforts in 1984 that increased
registration by 2 percentage points to 71.8 percent of voting-age population,
turnout rose by only 0.7 of a percentage point. It was not until 1992 that
turnout rose substantially--by 5 percentage points to 55.2 percent. The
difference was an electorate motivated by a close and compelling presidential
contest, according to a study by political scientists Steven Rosenstone, John
Mark Hansen, Paul Freedman, and Marguerite Grabarek.
DOES MOTOR VOTER REGISTER?
Motor Voter represents the most recent attempt to make voting easier by
removing restrictions imposed in the early years of this century. Its promise is
that it specifi cally targets those groups now least likely to be registered
voters--the mobile, the young, the poor, and citizens of color--by linking
registration to particular agencies with whom these groups deal. For example,
although 89 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds have driver's licenses, only 65
percent claim to be registered and 54 percent to be voters, according to a
Department of Transportation study. In the course of a five-year driver's
license cycle, most citizens will have an opportu nity to get on the voting
rolls. By extending mail-in registration to the 33 states where mail-in
procedures did not exist before, Motor Voter facilitates opportunities for
outreach by activist public officials such as the secretaries of state of
Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, and New Mexico, plus advocacy groups such as First
Vote, which coordinates voter registration of high school senior classes in some
Motor Voter also facilitates the maintenance of accurate voter lists by
providing for regular updating and purging of voter rolls and en couraging
standardized computerization of voter files. The Human Service Employees
Registration and Voter Education Fund (Human SERVE), the activist organization
led by Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven that pushed hard for Motor Voter's
passage and that now monitors its implementation, boasts that 11 million voters
have registered since the law went into effect, based on a telephone survey of
election officials the organization conducted earlier this year.
Yet while 11 million registrations is certainly a good thing, particularly for
a year in which there was no general election, that number sounds more
impressive than it really is. First, since all reported registrations are
included in this report, and there is nothing to compare them with, it is not
clear how many can actually be attributed to Motor Voter, even among the 5.6
million obtained at motor vehicle departments. This is because of the "substitution"
effect: Many of the people who registered through Motor Voter would have
registered to vote even if Motor Voter hadn't been around--they just would have
done it in the traditional way.
Also, since 1992 the voting-age population has grown by 7.5 million persons to
196.5 million. As a result, just keeping pace with the 71 percent level of
registration achieved in 1992 will require 5.3 million new registrations by
close of registration this year.
And even as the voting-age population grows, attrition due to death, departure,
and nonvoting removes more voters from the rolls--an additional deficit that new
registrations must balance. Because 1994 was a nonpresidential election year,
with characteristically low voter interest, 3.7 million voters disappeared from
the rolls who were not replaced. To restore registration to the 71 percent level
established in 1992, these 3.7 million voters must be replaced, in addition to
the 5.3 million needed to keep up with the population increase. That's 9 million
new voters total.
Most important, a major proportion of registration "transactions" are
really address changes for people who were already on the rolls somewhere else.
In California over the past year, for example, more than half of all
registration transactions were re-registrations. The combined effect of
attrition and address changes was shown in a 1988 California study conducted by
the Organizing Institute of San Francisco, which compared the year's
registration transactions with net increases in registration rolls. The study
concluded that it took more than two registration transactions to net a single
addition to the rolls.
It is impossible to know with certainty until November, of course, but
comparisons of Motor Voter registration transactions with state reports of
changes in cumulative registration reveal what can be expected. Florida, a state
with a history of restrictive reg istration that has recently made an aggressive
outreach effort under Motor Voter, reported the most transactions of any state
between October 1994 and May 1996: 2.15 million. The net addition to the rolls,
how ever, was less: 1.01 million, or about one out of two. California, a state
with a history of liberal registration procedures that only began implementing
Motor Voter in June 1995, reported 884,000 transactions by the March primary.
The net result was a decrease in registration by 200,000 voters. Coupled with a
voting-age population increase of 400,000 during the same period, the proportion
of voters registered actually declined from 77.7 percent in October 1994 to 75.1
percent in March 1996.
Thus, registering the 9 million new voters required to maintain the 1992
registration rate of 71 percent, if information from Florida and California is
indicative, will require some 18 million registration transactions. To increase
registration nationally by just 1 percentage point would require 23 million
registration transactions. Motor Voter cer tainly helps make this goal more
attainable. But it's just as certainly not the entire solution.
examples should help clarify why it is so difficult to substantially increase
turnout by relying primarily on reforms that make registration easier. If voter
interest in 1996 is the same as it was in 1992--and 78 percent of registered
voters actually vote--the 23 million transactions required to increase
registration from 71 percent of the electorate to 72 percent would yield an
increase in turnout of just 1 percentage point, boosting turnout from 55.2 per
cent of the voting-age population to 56.2 percent. Improving turnout by 5
percentage points from 55.2 percent to 60.2 percent, a figure at the low end of
political scientist Raymond Wolfinger's estimate of the impact of Motor Voter on
turnout, would require adding 21.5 million voters to the rolls--or 43 million
transactions--4 times what was reported in the first year of implementation.
These projections are based not only on the unlikely assumption that
voters will be as motivated in 1996 as they were in 1992, but also on the
premise that voters registered under Motor Voter are as likely to vote as those
who registered under the old sys tem. In the past, those registered by
aggressive outreach programs such as Motor Voter have proved less likely to turn
out on election day than those who "self-registered" by traditional
For sure, Motor Voter will yield increases in turnout in states such as Florida
where "in person" registration requirements were a significant
deterrent to voting. Yet while a broader and more representative slice of the
electorate will surely get on the voter rolls, particu larly to the extent
registration in public assistance offices is ef fective, a significant national
impact will depend on the extent to which political strategists take advantage
of the new op portunities Motor Voter affords to motivate registrants by mobiliz
ing them to turn out to vote.
what about the partisan effects of Motor Voter? Because Motor Voter addresses
the cost end of the equation, and not motivation, its immediate impact will be
on those nonvoters for whom cumbersome registration procedures--and not a lack
of interest in politics--has been the primary obstacle to voting. According to a
1996 study by Wolfinger and Benjamin Highton, those most likely to become voters
as a result of the new law are drawn from two groups: the young and the movers.
Neither group has a significantly more Democratic orientation than the elec
torate as a whole.
"Movers," the 43 percent of nonvoters who have lived less than two
years at their current address, are less Democratic and less partisan than
average voters: They are 7 percent less Democratic, 4 percent less Republican,
and 12 percent more independent. ("Independent" refers to all people
who do not select "Democrat" or "Republican" when they
register.) Similarly, the 34 percent of nonvoters who are less than 30 years old
are 9 percent less Democratic, 2 percent less Republican, but 11 percent more
independent. In fact, these younger citizens are less Democratic than any other
age group: 28 percent of them voted for Ross Perot in 1992.
To the extent Motor Voter places more of these citizens on voter lists, its
immediate impact will be to increase the proportion of independents, largely at
the expense of Democrats. For example, after 1.06 million Floridians registered
via Motor Voter, the state's Republican registration declined from 41.8 percent
to 41.5 percent, but the Democratic registration declined from 49.4 percent to
46.6 percent. Registration of independents, meanwhile, increased from 8.6
percent to 10.6 percent.
Motor Voter will thus facilitate voting by young mobile middle-income couples
for whom the need to register with a county clerk and learn the location of the
local polling place has been a deterrent to voting. It will also facilitate
voting by younger citizens eager to renew their driver's license, but unlikely
to make an extra effort to register to vote. It will contribute little to the
motivation of the young single mother on welfare who believes voting will not
make a difference in her life or that of her children.
In addition, because the impact of the new law will be greatest in those states
with the most restrictive registration requirements in the past, Motor Voter
will enroll the most new voters in states and districts in which Democrats have
had a hard time holding on to an electoral base. The 15 states with the most
restrictive laws prior to 1993--Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky,
Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico,
Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming--split in terms of support for the
Democratic nominee in 1992 and all but Massachusetts voted for Bush in 1988. On
the other hand, nine of the ten states with the most liberalized voting laws
already on the books--Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Michigan,
Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington--supported
Clinton in 1992, although only half supported Dukakis in 1988.
The effect of Motor Voter will thus be to increase turnout among reasonably
motivated citizens living in states with histories of restrictive voting proce
dures, such as "movers" in Florida. It will have the least effect on
the turnout of unmotivated citizens living in states with histo ries of
liberalized voting procedures, such as low-income voters in Colorado. On its
own, it will not change partisan alignments except in states where it makes
outcomes more volatile by favoring independents at the ex pense of Democrats.
MOBILIZING, NOT JUST MOTORIZING
Despite its limited direct effect on registration and turnout, Motor Voter
offers partisan strategists im por tant new opportunities for mobilizing voter
turnout. By making reg istration easier, Motor Voter creates voter rolls that
are more inclusive of everyone--lower-income citizens and citizens of color as
well as young people and movers. Because of new updating and reporting require
ments these lists will be more accurate and more likely to be computerized. They
are also more likely to be available well before the election, something that is
not the case with election day registration. This means par ties, campaigns, and
interest groups can more easily contact a broader and more inclu sive slice of
the electorate. This is not in itself a windfall for anyone, but it does offer
Democrats a unique opportunity for a voter mobilization strategy if they choose
to take it.
Here's why: Recall that young people as a whole are not a particularly
Democratic constituency. However, if you take that group of young people and
divide them into voters and nonvoters, you'll find that the voters in this group
are significantly more Democratic. (Fifty-one percent of voters identify
themselves as Democratic, compared to 42 percent of nonvoters; 37 percent of
voters call themselves Republican, as opposed to 38 percent of nonvoters; and 12
percent identify as independent, versus 20 percent of nonvoters.) The same holds
true for the other groups of nonvoters, as shown in the chart, "What a
Difference Mobilization Makes," on the next page.
Why the disparity? Do these people simply become more partisan and Democratic
because they vote? More likely, they are motivated to vote because they have
become more partisan and Democratic--and that's the lesson here. Mobilization
efforts pay off, perhaps because these groups have some underlying Democratic
orientation that can only be realized if they are engaged. This could
make an important difference in those states and districts where Motor Voter
will have the biggest impact and Democrats face some of their biggest
challenges, particularly given the staggering number of nonvoters out there.
what does "engage" really mean? As a growing body of research
shows--and as activists have argued for many years--the key to motivating
citizens to vote is personal partisan mobilization. [See, for instance, Peter
Wielhouwer and Brad Lockerbie, "Party Contacting and Political
Participation, 1952-90," American Journal of Political Science,
February 1994.] For example, political scientist Eric Oliver has shown that the
effect of absentee ballot reform on turnout de pends on the extent to which it
is coupled with partisan mobilization. In their 1993 book Mobilization,
Participation, and Democracy in America, Steven Rosenstone and Mark Hansen
demonstrated that a major portion of the declining voter turnout over the last
30 years was due to decline in partisan contact with voters. The challenge for
Democrats, then, is in contacting, engaging, and motivating these citizens to
vote--a task made considerably easier by Motor Voter. Of course,
conservatives--in the service of the GOP, the Christian Coalition, Ross Perot's
Reform Party, or some other group--can reach out to these groups more easily
People are most motivated to act when contacted by people whom they know
rather than by pieces of direct mail, telemarketers, and television commercials.
Ironically, the same electoral technology that has facilitated marginal ization
of much of the electorate could facilitate its incorporation if combined with ef
fective strategies for personal mobilization. Computerization of voter files
makes it possible to specifically target on a precinct-by-precinct basis only
those new registrants who fit the demographic profiles described above.
In other words, what is required is to contact these citizens and persuade them
that turning out to vote could make a big difference to them. Although this is
easier said than done, Motor Voter helps because in most states newly registered
voters will at least receive mailings from the state: a voter card, sample
ballot, and an election pamphlet. This provides them with basic information and
lets them know that their par ticipation matters enough to merit a piece of mail
from the state. Also, to the extent Motor Voter generates more accurate lists,
it makes that information more widely ac cessible and reduces the cost of
targeted voter contact.
Targeting these voters, however, requires a reversal of the approach political
strate gists favor of allocating limited campaign resources to persuading voters
who are most likely to vote but uncertain for whom. It would require a
commitment to mobilizing voters who are less certain to vote, but more likely to
support the party's candidate if they do. Although Democrats should prioritize
newly registered voters in their party, they would also realize a good return by
contacting independents in these demographic groups. Voters under 30 offer a
particularly good op portunity because the party with which a person votes for
the first time is extremely important in establishing their subsequent voting
pattern. Whoever reaches them most directly and with the most compelling message
could win their support for decades to come.
Although at the very least party organizations could target these voters for a
piece of welcoming "motivational" mail, a more effective proposal
would be to eschew contacting these voters through expensive telemarketing or
direct mail techniques in favor of investing in the recruitment, training, and
deployment of partisan volunteers from the same communities in which the voters
live. On a precinct-by-precinct basis, these potential voters could be
personally contacted in manageable numbers, asked to support the party, and
followed up on to make certain they go to the polls. It would be an excellent
task to assign to partisan volunteers who live in the same precinct--or to union
activists mo bilized by the new AFL-CIO political program, graduates of the
Democratic National Committee's training institutes, or grassroots networks such
as Citizen Action.
Of course, technique is not enough. Volunteers would need a very persuasive
story as to why citizens under 30, those with incomes below $30,000, and
citizens of color should vote for Democratic candidates. When visiting newly
registered Democrats, it would be important to reaffirm their partisan
commitment. When visiting independents, it would be important to offer them good
reasons not only to vote for a specific candidate or issue, but to vote
Democratic. If convinced, they will be more likely to vote and to keep voting.
And so for all of its revolutionary promise, the real impact of Motor Voter
will depend on the extent to which political strategists persuade
citizens--person by person--that voting for their candidates can make a real
difference in the citizens' lives. Procedural reform without political change
will yield little in the way of real results. The real answer to the question of
whom Motor Voter will help is that it depends on who does what it takes to earn
It took a highly publicized
grassroots campaign and the election of a Democratic president to turn the Motor
Voter bill into the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. But that, it turns
out, was only half the battle. See "Motor Votor's
Breakdown Lane" and find out how several governors (most of them
Republicans) have resisted Motor Votor. Also, the debate continues in the correspondence section
of our November-December issue.
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