It warms my heart to see occasions on which political science can be useful to our national discourse. Immediately thereafter it saddens me to see how rarely the media and political class take advantage of it.

Yesterday's New York Times ran a board editorial on the Justice Department's decision, 17 years after the National Voter Registration Act was passed, to require states to enforce the law. It did not take long for states to get on board with the "Motor Voter" portion of the law that combined driver services like license renewal with voter registration. However, some (Republican-led) states were much less enthusiastic about the other requirements to register people who obtain services like food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, disability, or S-Chip. Classy. And subtle.

The assumption underlying both the Republican stonewalling and the NYT's enthusiasm for the "welfare voter" portion of the law is that registration leads to voting – specifically that registering poor people leads to Democratic voting. But is there any evidence that this happens? Registration, convenience voting, and turnout happen to be my corner of the world, so…lucky you.

It has long been recognized that voter registration is costly in the U.S., contributing to turnout comparatively lower than other Western democracies. We are one of the only countries in the world in which the burden of maintaining a valid registration falls on the individual and not the state. As a result, the characteristics that we assume are predictors of turnout – income, education, partisanship, etc. – are better predictors of registration. Once registered, it was long assumed that one was highly likely (on the order of 80% or more) to turn out. The moral of this strain of research (see Erikson 1981 or Highton 1997 for an overview) was that if we could somehow get everyone registered we would have exceptional turnout. Get a person over the hurdle of registration, we assumed, and there was nothing to stop him from voting.

The problem is that the things that make people register, namely interest in and attention to politics combined with the skills necessary to register properly, are the same things that make someone likely to turn out. So not all registered voters are alike. Some were motivated enough to register on their own and thus are probably motivated to vote too. But if someone else registers you, does that matter? If you lack the skills/desire to register you probably lack the same with respect to voting.

In short, efforts to increase registration have rapidly diminishing returns. More people of lower socioeconomic status will vote because of the changes described in the editorial, but the turnout rate among that group will continue to lag the wealthier and better educated. Each additional trick used to wring a few more registrations out of the population of eligible voters is reaching successively less motivated or less educated people. So it depends on how one characterizes Americans who are using the social safety net – do they not vote because they don't know how to get registered and find the polls or do they abstain because they just don't care?

Nearly every effort to make registration easier and voting more convenient has primarily served to increase the convenience of people who would have voted anyway rather than to bring new voters into the fold and increase turnout (see Oregon's disappointing experiment with all-mail balloting). Based on the available evidence it is highly doubtful that, as the Times states,

When advocacy groups sued Ohio and Missouri to force their public assistance offices into complying, huge groups of new voters surged onto the rolls — more than 100,000 in Ohio, and more than 200,000 in Missouri. Nationwide enforcement by the Justice Department could add millions more. The more people who have access to the ballot, the better the country will be.

"Access" as a hypothetical will increase. Will those who enjoy this new access use it independently of the unprecedented GOTV drives responsible for the noted turnout surges in Ohio and Missouri? I'll believe it when I see it. Like other groups that don't turn out well historically – college kids, for example – there is more to getting the poor interested in voting than simply registering them.

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  1. Bugboy Says:

    I've been trying to explain to my son the dynamics of age and voting…how young people are more liberal in general but are more cynical about their contribution to the process and thus sit out the vote, how older people tend to be more conservative but are willing to go the extra mile to vote and be involved in the debate and do their civic duty.

    Who has time to go to rallies and research issues and politicians? Why, retirees! How many young kids throw their hands in the air saying their vote doesn't count? So this dynamic skews the whole process where you have sort of a log scale of enthusiasm for the voting process based on age and cynicism.

    One thing the editorial misses is how the GOTV registration process guilts people into actually voting. Delay that any amount of time between registration and an election and those same people will just S(sit)OTV.

  2. Bugboy Says:

    BTW my son will be 17 in December…I'm really proud of him.

  3. anotherbozo Says:

    It's my guess (the point of view of a non poly-sci naive) that it'll take a lot of time for the poor of this country to make it to the polls. Not just because of the social dysfunciton that disinclines them to show up at the ballot box, either. The poor in this country are almost uniquely apologetic about their poverty, ashamed, full of feelings of unworthiness, convinced by the prevailing mythology–which they usually don't have the education to question— that this is a land of unlimited opportunity for those with gumption and if you're poor, it's your own damned fault. Such embarrassment leads to political passivity. Go to any other country I can think of and you'll see the organized poor, the politically radicalized underclass challenging the status quo. But as everyone knows we here in the US of A don't have classes, only the can-do kind of the upwardly mobile, and the failures, who shouldn't enter the public arena until they at least get it together for themselves.

    Of course in New York City we see the working poor from immigrant groups–India, the Caribbean most recently–swelling the ranks of the underclass, and they are less apologetic and more politcally savvy. Maybe they'll help change the rules, particularly since economic success, even for those whose self-worth hasn't been poisoned by our mythology, is a bit tougher these days.

  4. sluggo Says:

    Get your butt to the poll and vote. I don't think of voting as a right, but a responsibility. Voter registration needs to be automatic and the penalties for not voting need to be draconian (x number of days in jail, fines and a special higher tax rate for morons that don't vote).
    I know that there is tremendous opposition from the wealthy and powerful to getting the masses to vote and I am just sick of cutesy "Rock the Vote" and all that crap.
    Being reasonable and nice is something that I am done with.

  5. The Man, The Myth Says:

    Great post and great comments. If someone could address the role of requiring folks to show a form of ID when they vote I would be most impressed. As I see it that is simply another tool to address a problem that doesn't exist (people going to vote twice?) and actually making it more difficult for poor people to vote. Not all people have an ID and they probably aren't going to purchase one to vote…

  6. jazzbumpa Says:

    Ed – Good post.

    Sluggo – Your draconian punishment idea is bad on every level imaginable.

    Myth Man – Re: multiple voting, Cf. Chicago (vote early, vote often.)

    For the record, I'm retired, liberal, and vote every chance I get.


  7. Ravi M. Singh Says:

    As a Canadian, I'm always amazed to find out all the barriers that US citizens face to do something so simple as voting, something which so many tout as the cornerstone of democracy. Something we have in common, however, is that despite the automatic registration that we have as Canadians and that fact that our designated voting stations are always walking distance from home, many of the same groups you mention are also disinclined to vote here – i.e. college students.

    In Canada, our biggest focus is on "civic education" as a means to get younger folks voting, but it's never really taken off because we've ignored another issue, that of making your vote actually count. While we have more than two parties here, the smaller parties are rendered impotent by our first past the post system. A PR system might prove more democratic and similarly, a viable third option might prove useful in the States if the absolute dominance of the Dems and GOP can be countered. Even though it's so easy to vote here, I often feel that I shouldn't bother because my vote counts for so little. There's a whole lot more to voting than getting people to the polls, it's also about a system that works and is far, but that's a whole other issue.

    Great post as usual, Ed!

  8. Radical Scientist Says:

    I think the 'welfare voter' program Ed describes is great–like Motor Voter programs, it'll take a minimal effort from state employees to register a ton of people, and some percentage of those people will be motivated to vote, at least in the elections where they have some interest in doing so. And my very-limited experience with GOTV drives taught me it's easier to cajole people into voting than to cajole them into registering by the deadline and voting after that.

    But man, I do not want jail time for people who don't vote. If lots of voters are motivated only by the need to avoid punishment, we're gonna get a whole lot of noise in the system, a la Alvin Greene's apparently-accidental win in the SC democratic primary. Lots of people don't follow politics. They don't want to, and don't intend to. I say, register them automatically, make it easy to vote whenever they do take an interest. But forcing lots of people to vote when they don't give a damn will probably end badly.

  9. Matt L Says:

    Excellent post! I did not know that. Plus, its nice to see real expertise exercised on this point, rather than the same of CW from the NYTimes.

  10. John Says:

    @Slugo, "Voter registration needs to be automatic and the penalties for not voting need to be draconian "

    Not until the peoples' votes actually matter.

    I am part of that class of disillusioned non-voters. I don't vote because I am keenly aware of just how much my vote absolutely does not mean a thing in the modern American voting system, and I refuse to waste time supporting a fundamentally flawed system.

    We saw, in the 2000 election, entire swaths of voters in Florida arbitrarily and falsely disenfranchised. Scores of people on registered felon lists, and therefore legally unable to vote, despite that the fact that *they never commited a crime in their lives*. Entire districts thrown out because of "hanging chads" and other such nonsense. If you lived in Florida in 2000, *there is a substantial chance that your vote was not even counted, let alone mattered*.

    And then we have the issue of the modern electronic voting machines, mostly by Diebold. Put simply, these machines are the biggest joke in the computing security world. They are the poster-child example in security 101 classes of insecure, vulnerable computing systems. There are documented cases (http://www.bbvforums.org/cgi-bin/forums/board-auth.cgi?file=/1954/15595.html as one example) of these voting machines being blown wide open to whatever falsified vote counts a malicious third party desires.

    If you vote in a district that uses electronic voting machines — and there are countless such districts across the nation, *your vote is literally meaningless*. Your vote does not count one whit. Anyone with the proper knowledge and motivation can make those machines read out whatever they please.

    American elections have always been a joke. But these days they are entirely pointless and irrelevant.

  11. BK Says:

    Ed –

    Have you ever done any research into how and why campaigns use registered voter lists as well as the list of voters who actually participated in elections?

    I'm not sure exactly how to phrase the hypothesis (I'm not a researcher), but my experience has been that political campaigns – especially at the state senate and assembly/house and local levels – use these lists for the development of targeted mailings, walk lists, polling and GOTV activities.

    These lists are cheap to procure, easy to organize and would be too expensive for smaller campaigns to get through vendors who specialize in direct mail or consumer driven research.

    As you can imagine, there are election consulting firms that are typically run or staffed by former legislators or legislative/election staffers that work exclusively with one party.

    My hunch is that the drive for wide-spread voter registration is much less about the altrusitic good of invreased particiaption in democracy and much more a function of the 'need' for inexpensive data by smaller and not well-funded political campaigns.

  12. think it through Says:

    Whoop de blanking doo, a one-in-50-million chance to influence a forced choice between two colluding parties that screw you in marginally different ways. What a breakthrough.

  13. Jimcat Says:

    @Ravi Singh:

    As an American registered voter, I'm wondering what you see as the barriers to registration in the US. I'm asking this question honestly, not cynically.

    I've had to re-register several times in my life due to moving to a new city, and each time it was quick and easy. Go to the city offices, ask for a voter registration form, provide proof of residence, and there it is, nothing else to worry about until I move again. It really didn't seem like a confusing or challenging process.

    But maybe I'm missing the forest for the trees. What barriers are you seeing from your outside perspective?

  14. Ravi M. Singh Says:


    I'm not referring strictly to the registration process which might be simple, but a lot of the issues that come up throughout the whole voting process. Mind you, I am basing this on anecdotal evidence, but stories always seem to come up concerning accessibility at polling stations, problems over the type of ID that voters need to present and many voters lack, and of course extremely long wait times at the stations, most of which are unheard of over here. Of course, American voters will have a variety of experiences when it comes to voting and nothing is the same across the board, so I don't mean to make a general statement.

    Barriers might be a strong term, since I'm coming from a Canadian perspective which is characterized by such simplicity, though we have a much smaller population to manage and your polling station is usually the local school, which is already accessible. I suppose "difficulties" is a more apt term. Hope that makes sense.

  15. Radical Scientist Says:

    Jimcat–I know my state removes people from the voter rolls after several years of inactivity. When I went to vote in the '08 elections, there were several people at my polling place who were surprised (and angry) to find they were no longer registered, when they'd finally come up on an election they gave a shit about. And then there's the whole having-elections-on-a-weekday thing. I'd agree that it's not generally hard to register and vote if you're motivated to do so, but it can be a frustrating experience.

  16. lawnorder Says:

    Did you guys ever study Brazil ? Voting there is mandatory, you can't get a job or any government service without proving you voted on the last election.

    Turnout is almost 100% and it produces a lot of interesting things you don't see on US and Europe: A city with two lousy mayor candidates, forced to vote wrote in the name of the pet goat on the city zoo (as suggested by a radio station) and the pet goat, named "Stinky" had almost 70% of the votes. Brazil's parties obviously don't need GOTV efforts but they still send people to canvass houses and try to talk voters into voting for their guy. On election day, many a corrupt politician was caught distributing money and a ballot with their name checked, to poor uneducated voters.

    Just thought I'd mention a completely different scenario that happens in a real country, for the pol sci junkies.

  17. sluggo Says:

    @ lawnorder—Given the choice between a pet goat and the guy reading 'My Pet Goat' during 9/11 it isn't even close.

  18. lawnorder Says:

    lol, indeed!

  19. beau Says:

    Vote Goat 2011!

  20. Nancy Irving Says:

    There are several reasons why poor people don't vote.

    They may be working two crummy jobs and so are spending most of their "free" time sleeping, taking care of the kids, and trying with difficulty to maintain the bare necessities for survival; anything, like voting, that does not *directly* impact their situation gets pushed to the end of the queue, and often just doesn't get done.

    Or they are unemployed, and because they are unemployed they are too depressed to rouse themselves to vote.

    Finally, they may believe (possibly correctly) that their vote won't make any difference to their lives.

    Some states like mine (California) also make informing oneself about the issues extremely daunting to those without a college education. Multiple ballot initiatives, complete with reams of fine-printed official mailers with pro and con arguments from all the interest groups, require hours of study and must discourage many from undertaking such a task. I am highly educated and highly motivated, but sometimes it's difficult even for me to drag myself across the finish line. What must it be like for a single mom waiting tables at Denny's?

    Don't condescend to poor people, saying they just "don't care." It's a lot more complicated than that.