In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act. This act was designed to expand ballot access by making voter registration services more widely available. The federal legislation requires all 50 states to offer voter registration services by mail, at social service offices, and at motor vehicle offices. The National Voter Registration Act is considered by many to be an important victory for the Clinton administration. A closer look at the origins of the act, however, suggests that Clinton's success story is really the success story of a broad and influential social movement. Like previous extensions of voting rights, this victory was in large part the result of a political struggle that the dominant power structure ultimately supported, but did not initiate.
The history of voting rights in the United States is more a legacy of exclusion than of inclusion. At the founding of the nation, the vote was extended to a limited few. Access to the ballot box has expanded only gradually over the years. This process of enfranchisement has always been rooted in political struggle among contending forces. Voting rights have expanded further under the Clinton administration, and this latest chapter of expanded voting rights also emerged as a product of political straggle. It is the political straggle surrounding the passage of the National Voter Registration Act that is the focus of this article.
Within the social science literature, many argue that voting is a weak form of political participation that distracts our attention from other, more meaningful, ways of influencing our economic and social well-being (Ginsberg, 1981). In a representative democracy, voters only select leaders and rarely are able to directly express a voice on the issues that most affect them. For this reason, some may consider a focus on voting reform as a social justice issue to be misguided. However, the historical reality is that voting reform has been a centerpiece of progressive activism for social justice throughout U.S. history. Though the substantive victories these movements have yielded are rarely as large as movement actors had hoped for, the focus on voting rights has been both substantively and symbolically important. Symbolically, a focus on voting rights reveals who is not included in the political discourse, and this can provide an opportunity for social movement activity. Substantively, the expansion of voting rights has the potential to create real and enduring changes.
In this article, we explore the historical developments that culminated in passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. We begin by examining the current state of voting within the United States, focusing on the problems of limited and declining participation in electoral politics. We then explore some of the reasons for this decline and attempt to link the etiology of the problem to the range of policy reforms available to policymakers. The article then describes the legislative history of the National Voter Registration Act, analyzing the influences exerted by social movement actors and legislators alike, with particular focus on the events that occurred during the early days of the Clinton administration. Finally, we speculate about the possible consequences of this reform, including the strange irony that the National Voter Registration Act may turn out to be as much a victory for the Republican Party and previously organized interests as it is for President Clinton.
The Historical Background of Voting Rights in the United States
The authors of the United States Constitution designed a political system that would limit the influence of factious elements in society. Their response to the "fear of factions" was to formulate a decentralized political system in which people vote for "representatives" to conduct policy-making in their name, rather than allowing all citizens to participate more directly in substantive decision-making processes (Madison, 1961). Fragmentation within the political system was intended to limit any one group of people from amassing too much power. Although the historical record indicates that these structural constraints were specifically enacted to restrict the participation of those with less economic, social, and cultural power, while protecting the power of elites, this historical reality is neither widely understood nor accepted by the American people (Beard, 1986; Parenti, 1977; Zinn, 1980).
Indeed, since the early days of the Republic, United States citizens have embraced the notion that representative democracy is the most legitimate method for organizing democratic society. More importantly, citizens believe that voting is the proper means for selecting elites to represent citizen interests within the governing process. Americans are so enthralled with the idea of voting that elections have become the nation's yardstick for judging the legitimacy of governing systems around the world. Because the right-wing regime operating in El Salvador during the 1980s was "elected" by a portion of that nation's citizenry, the El Salvadoran government was deemed by the architects of United States foreign policy to be the legitimate voice of the people. In contrast, during the same period, the left-wing government of Nicaragua was considered by these same policy actors to be illegitimate because it was not duly elected in a national referendum. Using this yardstick, the Soviet Union, Haiti, Iraq, Rwanda, Cuba, and many other nations have appeared on the list maintained by the U.S. of "illegitimate" governments, since their ruling elites were selected through means other than an electoral process.(1)
In stark contrast to the scrutiny of "democracy" in other countries, the United States rarely looks inward to assess the health and legitimacy of its own electoral mechanisms. Most political pundits are familiar with how President Johnson stole his first Texas Senate election (Caro, 1990). Goldberg (1987) identifies "vote buying, fraudulent registration, ...fraudulent use of absentee ballots, and falsification of election counts" as the primary forms of election fraud in the United States. These situations are generally considered by the wider public to be historical exceptions to an otherwise healthy democratic system or isolated incidents that offer no hint of broader problems. Unfortunately, little public attention has been paid to the overall health of electoral politics in the United States.
The failure to honestly examine the health of democracy in the United States is astonishing given the dramatic decline in voter participation since 1960 (see Figure 1 at the end of the article).
When nonvoting is examined across time, space, and political context, it emerges as an important indicator of the relative health of democracy in any political system based upon elections and the consent of the governed (Burnham, 1987: 131-132).
The United States elects presidents today with barely half the eligible electorate participating in national elections. In 1992, Bill Clinton won 43% of the vote among the 55% of eligible voters that decided to vote. In other words, less than one-quarter (23.65%) of the eligible electorate voted Bill Clinton into office. Considering the percentage of Clinton's vote that was really cast as an anti-George Bush vote, the portrait of current elections is even more dismal. This anemic foundation of support provides a weak power base for the president and contributes to the perception that presidents are unable to make significant policy advances. Consequently, a weak power base may contribute to large fluctuations in electorate support, as evidenced in the 1994 midterm elections.
Turnout in presidential elections is terribly low; turnout in midterm elections is worse. Only one-in-three eligible citizens participate in midterm elections. Local elections, furthermore, are lucky to draw 25% of the population to the polls. When the United States is compared to other Western industrial nations, turnout figures place this nation at the bottom of the pack (see Table 1). It is interesting that such poor rates of turnout belong to the nation that is most vocal in touting elections as the legitimate mechanism for selecting public officials. As one observer of American politics wrote:
...by this criterion [the proportion of the potential electorate that actually votes], the United States is significantly less democratized today than any other polity of consequence holding more or less free elections. This is the more striking in view of the enormous aggregate American advantage in wealth, education, and the like, …