Why Americans Don't Vote

May 10, 1991

A Senate committee has approved the so-called "motor-voter" bill. The goal is to remove present state procedural and bureaucratic barriers to voter registration. That is commendable. it can be done at little or no cost to the hard-pressed states, it should be. But don't expect too much from it. Registration laws are not the reason for America's disgracefully low citizen participation rate in elections.

The Senate version would automatically register citizens to vote when they obtained or renewed a driver's license or change addresses. You could also register by mail and at many state and local offices, including libraries. Advocates of such reform // predict it would increase registration and turnout. There is evidence that it would do the former -- but not the latter, at least not by much. Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate says only about 10 percent of America's non-voters go fishing on Election Day because of registration obstacles.

Mr. Gans nonetheless supports easier registration on the theory that adding some 20 million citizens to the registration rolls would tend to mitigate the influence of special-interest voters. He believes that about 8 million of the new registrants would actually vote in presidential elections -- and that they would tend to vote out of general, not special, concerns. Since special-interest politics is a large part of what is wrong with government today, that is a pleasant prospect.

But we have to note that a Congressional Research Service study of the few states that already have this sort of easy registration found that most have not experienced increased turnout. Turnout in presidential elections in Iowa, Minnesota and Nevada, for example, was down about 10 percent after reforms went into effect. Even if easier registration has a positive effect, it isn't positive enough to overcome the negative forces coercing more and more citizens not to vote.

Passing a federal statute dealing with the one American in 10 who is deterred from voting by state registration laws is one-ninth as helpful as doing something about the other things that deter the other nine. It is the sort of Washington response to a problem that explains the problem. Politicians support what author Arthur Hadley once called the "myth" that registration procedures are the problem, "rather. . . than face the unpleasant fact that voters voluntarily avoid the [voting] booth in droves because of their contempt for politicians and also because they see no connection between politics and their lives."

That was written 14 years ago. It is as true today as it was then. Probably even more so.

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