The Politics of Inclusion: Private Voting Rights under the Clinton Administration

Article excerpt

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). …