Questions and Answers About Motor Voter

An Important Reform That Is Not Just for Democrats        

Bernard Grofman

Why Was There a Need For "Motor Voter"?

        We needed to try to do something to raise levels of political participation because of the embarrassingly low levels of voter turnout in the U.S. as compared to other democracies. The U.S. is 20th out of 21 in voter turnout among established democracies -- only Switzerland has lower voter turnout than turnout in U.S. presidential elections.
        Turnout among potentially eligible voters in the U.S. in presidential elections is only 50-55%. By comparison, turnout is 70-75% in Canada and well over 80% in most other democracies. Even many fragile new democracies have turnout levels far higher than ours. Having only a bare majority of the electorate participating in the democratic process makes a mockery of the idea that elections express the will of the people.
        In Canada, for example, although their turnout is far higher than ours, Canadians are far from satisfied with that performance -- low voter turnout was one of the topics of concern in a recent Royal Commission Report in Canada on election reform.

Will Motor Voter Raise Turnout?

        The U.S. is one of the few countries to require citizens to get themselves registered to vote, rather than having the government pro-actively making sure that all voters are on the electoral rolls -- usually through some form of automatic (and permanent) registration on achieving voting age.
        On the one hand, in the United States, registration requirements are a serious barrier to political participation, and, on the other hand, at present a very high proportion of voters who are registered do actually vote -- at least in presidential elections. So, it is safe to say that turnout will rise if motor voter is effectively implemented and many voters are as a result registered.
        But the turnout increase will not be nearly as great as the supporters of motor voter hope. Even if there were no registration requirements, not all
potential voters would go to the polls, as we know from looking at the turnout level in the states that have had election day registration since the 1970s.
        Turnout in states with election day registration has averaged close to ten percentage points higher than in the rest of the country, with about two-thirds of that difference attributable to the fact that these states have simplified their registration rules.
        I do not think the results of motor voter will be much greater than a ten percentage point increasing turnout, if that. Even if they are registered, voters must know when an election is, be able to make their way to the polls and most importantly, know enough and care enough to vote.
        We make the task of voting harder in the U.S. than in most other democracies by having so many different kinds of elections and by having ballots that are so incredibly long. One of my colleagues has described voting in the U.S. as "never have so few voted for so many so often:" e.g., we have very low turnout, many elected officials (as well as initiatives and referenda in many states) and many different dates between presidential elections in which voters are asked to come to the polls.

Won't Democrats Benefit More than Republicans?

        Counterintuitively, the answer to that question is no. Yes, the poor and the less well-educated simply do not vote at the same rates as the rest of the electorate. Yes, the groups with the lowest turnout are the groups where Democrats have historically done best. Generally speaking, the lower voters' educational level and the lower voters' income level, the less likely are they to vote. For example, college graduates in some recent elections have had turnout levels nearly twice that of those who have not finished high school.
        So it would seem to be common sense that motor voter, by increasing registration among the groups that now have such low turnout, would have to benefit Democrats. But common sense can be wrong.
        Some Democratic activists see motor voter as a panacea for the erosion of the Democrat's position as the majority party and some Republican activists fear its effects for exactly that reason. They are both wrong. First, the overall changes in turnout due to motor voter will not be that great.
        Second, the fact that non-voters are more Democratically inclined than voters does not mean nonvoters will support a Democratic presidential nominee at much higher rates than voters do. Present non-voters are by and large also less knowledgeable about politics than people who regularly vote and thus more likely to be swept away by electoral tides that favor the winner -- whether that winner is a Republican or a Democrat.
        Researchers who have looked at differences in the candidate preference of voters and non-voters in recent presidential elections simply do not find very much difference between the two groups. Moreover, if registration barriers are reduced by motor voter, some present non-voters are more likely to turn out than others, and it is not the non-voters that are the most Democratic in their leanings who are the most likely to be added to the electorate.
        If you lower registration barriers you will not change the participation of the best educated and highest income voters much because they are voting at high levels already, but you might not change the turnout levels among the poorest and least well educated voters that much either. Think of it as a problem of hurdles. As said earlier, even if there were no registration barriers to turnout, a significant proportion of the electorate still might not vote.
        Research I have done jointly with a colleague looks at turnout gains by education and income in the states that adopted election day registration. It suggests that it will be the voters in the middle -- e.g. those with high school degrees but not college degrees -- whose turnout will grow the most if you reduce barriers to registration. Thus, a lot of the potential new motor voter voters will be lower middle class "Reagan Democrats," a group that in recent years has politically been up for grabs.

Are There Other Ways to Raise Turnout?

        Motor voter is certainly not enough. We might want to think about reforms such as weekend voting, or the location of polling places in shopping centers so that people could combine a trip to the polls with other activities, or about extending voting for two days.
        But there are a lot of reasons why turnout in the U.S. is as low as it is. Voters have to want to go to the polls and to believe that their votes will matter. But many voters are disaffected from the two political parties, turned off by negative campaigning, intimidated by the long ballots, which in California give even a Ph.D in political science pause, and bothered by the lack of clear accountability in our crazy quilt federal system.
        In short, there are no simple cure-alls for America's abysmal voter turnout. But it is vital for American democracy that we get an electorate that "looks like the people."

        Bernard Grofman is a professor at the School of Social Sciences, University of California and author and editor of numerous books, including Choosing an Electoral System (Praeger, 1984) and Electoral Laws and Their The Political Consequences (Agathon, 1986).


        Notable Quotes

"On average, systems with proportional representation elements have contemporary participation rates that fluctuate around 85% on average, while the mean turnout for single-member constitutuency systems is about 10 to 15 percentage points lower. If one considers that proportional representation systems by definition come close to eliminating 'wasted votes' and are also associated with multiple parties that optimize voters' utility calculations, this differential should not be surprising."
                • Walter Dean Burnham, "The Turnout
                 Problem" in Elections, American Style
                 (Brookings Institution, 1987)

"Another change that could have a positive outcome [on voter turnout] is the addition of more political parties and candidates....[T]he one way to assure more diversity on the ballot is to change the electoral system and adopt proportional representation."
                • Seymour Lipset, 2/94 Insight article
                 "Why Americans Refuse to Vote"

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Chapter Six