Magazine article The American Prospect

Motor Voter or Motivated Voter?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Motor Voter or Motivated Voter?

Article excerpt

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 [see "The Motor Voter Breakdown Lane," page 48], 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 contributed 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 difference 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 mobilize 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--organizers make use of these new opportunities.


Political scientists attribute the ups and downs in voting behavior 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 motivated 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 important, is anyone mobilizing 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 motivation) to yield the first sharp declines in U. …

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