Motor Voter or Motivated Voter?

When 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.


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 out?

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.

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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.


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 3,000 schools.

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.

These 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 means.

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.

And 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.



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.

But 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 too.

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.

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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