blank.gif (51 bytes) Motor Voter:
A Dismal Failure

by Randall D. LLoyd

he Progressive movement’s attempts in the 1870s and beyond to reform political party domination of elections and accompanying fraud led to government control of the voting process. Voter registration, officially printed ballots and secret ballots were attempts to rid elections of fraud and coercion. Over 100 years later, when the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed in 1993, control of fraud was a far distant secondary concern. The act—also called Motor Voter—may even have turned back the clock, reintroducing fraud to American elections.

Motor Voter had a number of assumptions at its core. Generally, however, the assumptions are based on faulty reasoning and, frequently, agenda-driven scientific studies. Somewhere, at sometime, someone realized that there was a high level of voting by people who are registered to vote. In addition, some individuals came to the conclusion that registration was a very difficult process, perhaps even more difficult than voting on election day. Since the goal was to increase voter turnout, the idea arose that if everyone were registered, then everyone would vote. These two assumptions led to a belief in the need for policies that require the process of voter registration to be extremely simple.

Just what would be the policies, however? The shape that the Motor Voter law took was largely determined by two other concerns. The first concern was that poor people voted in disproportionately low numbers compared to their portion of the population. Further, a contingent of would-be policy makers suggested that registration requirements were largely to blame for the low turnout. The main intent of the Motor Voter law was to increase the dismally low turnout rates of Americans, particularly among the poor and minorities.

Liberals had concluded that poor people and minorities, if they voted, would likely support liberal candidates. Thus the first plank of the National Voter Registration Act was prepared by an official finding of Congress that discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures can have a direct and damaging effect on voter participation in elections for federal office, disproportionately harming voter participation by various groups, including racial minorities. To get poor people and minorities to register—and thus voting in accord with the earlier discussed assumption—the act mandated that registration must be allowed at federal, state, and local social-welfare agencies.

A second finding of Congress held that, in our very mobile society today, the need to register anew after a person moves has a negative effect on registration and therefore on turnout. Thus, the second plank of the act requires the states to set up a system of registration at state motor vehicle departments, where people who move must go virtually always. Additionally, the NVRA requires most states to implement mail registration. Mail registration is the avenue through which much fraud can take place, since there is little control over who is allowed to register in this manner.

Despite the laudatory claims made for it—that millions of people have registered to vote under its provisions—Motor Voter since its implementation in 1995 has been a dismal failure. A closer examination shows that overall registration levels have not increased noticeably, and worse, voter turnout, the main focus of registration reform, has continued to decrease.

So how can the claims of success be reconciled with these competing facts? It is simple: People who register under Motor Voter provisions are the people who would have registered anyway—without the simplified access. Motor Voter has just made registration easier for people who would have registered otherwise. Thus the passage of Motor Voter has not led to the hoped-for increase in turnout, but it has made voter fraud much easier to accomplish.

The basic flaw in Motor Voter’s underlying assumptions is the belief that it is the registration status of people that leads to voting. In other words, the conventional wisdom held that Americans are motivated or inhibited by external influences, not internal beliefs and motivations. But recent research has shown that the motivation to vote is especially internal: people register because they plan to vote. Therefore people who are registered are very likely to vote. However, people who have no interest in voting do not register to vote.

This is a novel idea for many in the voting-study and policy-making areas. That people are motivated by their own beliefs and not the legal requirements of registration is counter to conventional wisdom. It’s also troubling for those who would like to see legions of new voters casting ballots for left-wing candidates.

But the reason that more poor people and minorities don’t vote is simply because they don’t want to vote. That’s why they do not register. Their reasoning may be unfortunate, such as they don’t feel they have a stake in society, or they don’t feel voting will make a difference in their lives.

If this is their reasoning, then the aim of Motor Voter has missed the mark by a mile. People must first be taught that their vote does make a difference; that they do have a place in society and that it is their duty to vote.

As for the law’s requirement that motor vehicle departments register people, the underlying finding—that people are inhibited from registering after they move—is faulty for one very simple reason: researchers had never even inquired whether the people who moved had been registered before they moved. When a person who is not registered moves, there is no reason to expect that person to register after the move. But when researchers found that many, many people were not registered to vote after they moved, they assumed that the move had been an influence on the lack of registration. In recent research, a distinction was made between individuals previously registered and those previously unregistered before a move. The findings, not surprisingly, show that people who had been registered before a move were likely to register after they moved. Moving did not keep them from registering.

Flawed research, hopeful thinking and faulty assumptions have led to a system of registration that cannot have the impact that was hoped for. People do not vote because they are registered. People vote because they have been taught that they should; and that as citizens it is their duty to vote. The way to increase voter turnout in the future is not to enact dubious laws that cause more problems than they solve, but to once again teach children that they are important in the American society, and that it is their duty to participate in the political world, if only to vote. NJ

Randall D. Lloyd Ph.D. is a Senior Research Fellow with Nevada Policy Research Institute and lecturing professor in Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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