Get your voter running

The Democrats’ endless effort to make motor voter work




In 1987, the Nevada Legislature decided to try to do something about the decline in the state’s voter turnout rate.

What it came up with was a program that would make voter registration possible at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most people must go to the DMV about once a year, the thinking went, so this would make it a matter of a single stop for two purposes. It was an idea being tried elsewhere.

Republicans weren’t wild about the idea, and they controlled the Nevada Senate, but Democrats liked it, and this was still in the days when the political parties worked together, so the measure passed. It became known as motor voter.

The measure was enacted before the federal government took an interest in it. There was no federal legislation or mandate involved.

The program required cooperation between county clerk or county voter registrar offices and the state DMV offices. Overseeing the launch of the program was the Nevada Secretary of State’s office. I was the chief deputy secretary of state then.

Nevada’s turnout rate had never been something to brag about, but in recent years it had been dropping still more. Only about four in every 10 Nevadans eligible to vote got registered in the 1980s.

There was a sort of unwritten assumption that the Democratic Party would benefit more from ease of voter registration than Republicans. What was a surprise, to me at least, was that the Democrats proved to be so mercenary about it. When the first figures on motor voter registrations started coming in, they were mostly Republicans. It was a bit of a surprise, but I never expected it to cause any problems. To my surprise, there were leading Democrats who were very angry. Clark County Assembly member Myrna Williams, who the Democrats would install as speaker pro tempore the next session, threatened to get motor voter repealed. She didn’t follow through on the threat, but it seemed that Democrats weren’t all that purely motivated.

The Democrats swallowed their disappointment and election 1988—it was a presidential year—went forward. When it was over, not much had changed. A couple of percent more got registered, which did not come close to registration of even half of eligible Nevadans, so turnout of actual voters could not come close to a majority. And there appeared to be no link between ease of registration and turnout of voters.

Meanwhile, as Nevada and other states tried motor voter, Congress got interested in requiring states to have the program. Nevada’s U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, a Republican, used the 1988 result to argue in 1990 against a federal requirement for all states to use motor voter. “In the 1988 presidential election, motor voter was initiated in Nevada and voter registration had indeed increased to 44 percent [from 42],” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the turnout rate actually dropped three percentage points.”

Congress approved a mandatory motor voter law in 1992, and the first President Bush vetoed it. A new version was approved in 1993, and President Clinton signed it. Now Nevada and other states with motor voter experience could no longer act on that experience if they chose. If motor voter failed to move voter turnout, the states had to keep using it—and they had to bring their programs into compliance with the federal one-size-fits-all template.

As the years passed, study after study tracked motor voter programs around the country. Virtually all those studies reinforced the experience of the states—motor voter piled up registrations but did little for actual voting—perhaps a two percent gain in some years. The tail wagged the dog. Registrations were being touted while turnout dropped, which led to some strange news coverage. “While fewer Americans actually voted last election cycle, the Federal Election Commission has found that the number of people registered to vote in federal elections has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993,” the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported in 1999. (Emphasis is added.)

Motor voter was usually registering people not to vote. The remedy may have failed because no one had really defined the problem before applying a solution.

An end in itself

The United States did without voter registration for most of its history. It was developed during the Progressive era, not from administrative necessity but to prevent unpopular groups from voting—European immigrants in urban cities of the north, poor blacks and whites in the south. It worked like a charm, driving voting down so sharply that the country has not done without it since, while other democracies skip it—or leave the burden of registration on government instead of individuals. The notion that a device created to suppress voting could be “reformed” in the 1980s to encourage voting was a titillating one. (Some democracies, like Iceland and Finland, register voters for life—at birth.)

Voting in the U.S. stayed in the doldrums through the 1920s but began climbing in the 1930s. There was healthy turnout until about the 1960s, when voter turnout began slowly declining. Why? The assumption—and it quickly became conventional wisdom—is that it was apathy and disenchantment, a sense by citizens that voting does not change their lives or accomplish much. “Epic disenchantment,” New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen called it in 1992. Easing the obstacles to voting was seen as a fix—even though the decline had happened in a period when a variety of methods of easing voting had been introduced. With easier absentee voting, mail-in registrations, removal of racial bars in the south, turnout kept falling. Adding motor voter to this arsenal was supposed to be the one more step that solved it.

The claims made for motor voter were extravagant. “A bill that would raise national voter registration from 60 percent to 95 percent was passed by the House Tuesday. … Roughly 90 percent of eligible voters would be registered when they get or renew drivers’ licenses, which is why the legislation is commonly called the ’motor voter’ bill,” wrote voter registration lobbyists Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven in the New York Times in June 1992.

That kind of optimism has never died out among Democrats. For two decades, they have continued pushing motor voter, tinkering with it here and there, trying to make it work. (The federal law also admirably requires voter registration at public assistance offices, where those like the blind and disabled can be served.)

The newest wrinkle comes in Oregon and California, where residents who do business at the DMVs are registered to vote without being asked. Both state’s laws took effect at the start of this year, but California’s program has been stalled by technical problems, including how to frame an opt-out option. In Oregon, from January to mid-March, 16,000 new registrations were added—if piling up more registrations is good. But unwilling registrants have the same problem as willing registrants. They have to get to the polls. “Just because you’re registered doesn’t mean you’re actually going to cast a ballot,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Voter registration was added to motor vehicle and public assistance offices.


This new technique seeks to solve the same assumed problem—apathy—with the same remedy—ease of registration. But what if apathy is not the problem—and never was?

The war on voters

A decade ago, voting scholar Michael McDonald described this as a myth: “Thanks to increasing voter apathy, turnout keeps dwindling.”

“This is the mother of all turnout myths,” McDonald wrote in the Washington Post. “There may be plenty of apathetic voters out there, but the idea that ever fewer Americans are showing up at the polls should be put to rest.”

Few people listened to him, possibly because he identified a different cause of low voter turnout—one for which the Democrats were partly to blame and one that could not be solved as easily as registering drivers.

“What’s really happening is that the number of people not eligible to vote is rising—making it seem as though turnout is dropping,” he wrote. “Those who bemoan a decline in American civic society point to the drop in turnout from 55.2 percent in 1972, when 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote, to the low point of 48.9 percent in 1996. But that’s looking at the total voting-age population, which includes lots of people who aren’t eligible to vote—namely, noncitizens and convicted felons. These ineligible populations have increased dramatically over the past three decades, from about 2 percent of the voting-age population in 1972 to 10 percent today.”

When turnout is examined from the base number of those eligible to vote, he wrote, there was no problem for motor voter to solve.

“When you take them [disenfranchised voters] out of the equation, the post-1972 ’decline’ vanishes. Turnout rates among those eligible to vote have averaged 55.3 percent in presidential elections and 39.4 percent in midterm elections for the past three decades.” (Emphasis is added.)

It’s not an apathetic population that’s missing from the polls. It’s a disenfranchised population.

In the 1960s, the Nevada Legislature began getting tough on crime—creating new crimes, increasing penalties for old ones, making parole more difficult to get. Decade after decade, state legislators got reelected by running for sheriff. The same thing was happening in other states, but Nevada was particularly aggressive—the U.S. Justice Department once issued a report saying Nevada taxpayers paid more per capita than all but two other states for their criminal justice. The Silver State has normally had one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and world, comparable to the rates in apartheid South Africa or other authoritarian regimes. And convicted felons face obstacles to voting.

Drug offenses were particularly popular, and they had a race component that was portentous.

The consequences were demonstrated neatly in 1998. Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada squeaked through to reelection by just 401 votes after a recount. At the time, according to University of Minnesota voter disenfranchisement scholar Christopher Uggen, 10,500 African Americans in Nevada could not vote because of felony convictions. That was a fourth of all the disenfranchisements in the state, though blacks make up less than 7 percent of the populace. Most of them lived in Las Vegas, where African American precincts tend to go 90 percent-plus Democratic. Had former inmates been able to vote, Reid’s cliffhanger would almost certainly have been a comfortable victory margin. And this doesn’t even count the felony disenfranchised Latinos in the state.

The same thing was happening in Congress, where Democrats regularly joined Republicans on get-tough binges, particularly in the drug war. In 1986 following the allegedly drug-related death of basketball star Len Bias, Capitol Hill was seized by hysteria. Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill led the Democrats into a lawmaking frenzy nearly as extreme as the Republicans. Penalties piled up—including race-based penalties. A penalty formula was found under which blacks could receive harsher penalties than whites for using the same drug—crack cocaine (mostly used by blacks) compared to powder cocaine (mostly used by whites).

In Florida, the national capital of felony disenfranchisement, by 2000 a startling 31 percent of the state’s African Americans could not vote because they had been disenfranchised by felony convictions, particularly drug convictions. The Sentencing Project put their number at 200,000. Those 200,000 would probably have been an almost monolithic Democratic vote, enough to have turned the Florida near-tie into a Gore landslide. The Democrats had begun losing elections not by the margin of Ralph Nader’s vote but by the margin of blacks the Democrats have helped disenfranchise.


Last month, a Nixonian voice from the past helped make the point.

Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote an influential book on the drug war in 1996. As with any book, there was material he couldn’t use. In the current Harper’s Magazine, Baum revived an interview he did for the book with former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman. Richard Nixon was the first of three modern presidents—Nixon, Reagan and Bush I—who got their drug policies enacted by staging nationwide hysterias.

Ehrlichman told Baum that the war on drugs was never about drugs. It was about political success and voter suppression. It was—and is—a war on people.

“You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman said in the interview. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies—the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Meanwhile, motor voter is becoming ever more embedded in the system, to the point that a lack of an effective program can be treated as a civil rights violation.

Republicans seem determined to claim, in the face of all evidence, that there is an epidemic of voter fraud at the polling place that necessitates identification cards that will reduce the turnout of some Democratic groups. Democrats seem determined to claim, in the face of all evidence, that motor voter will work if they only keep trying. It’s certainly easier than reforming criminal justice.

The two sides seem codependent.