Monday, July 16, 2007

It Can Be Easier to Register to Vote

In a typical election, voter turnout in the United States is around 50-60% among eligible voters, one of the lowest rates among the world’s democracies. Among voters ages 18-29, the turnout in 2006 was just 22%. It seems the general assumption that young people are less engaged than their elders is true, at least as far as election numbers go. Ask anybody on the street and they can give you an explanation for why this is so. Many will operate under the assumption that people have to be engaged to vote, and many Americans – particularly younger ones – simply are not engaged in the political process. This is true, but it might not tell the whole story. If you are engaged in politics you are probably more likely to vote, but then again, if you are registered to vote, wouldn’t you be more motivated to get engaged?

Take a look at 1993’s National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter”, which requires states to offer voter registration to citizens when they go to the DMV to get their drivers’ license. The law also requires states to provide registration services to those who receive Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other various government services, as well as to those with disabilities who receive help through the government. Most states implemented the NVRA by early 1995, effectively registering millions of new voters. According to the U.S. Census report, about 82% of registered voters actually voted in 1996, about 85% of those registered voted in 2000, and close to 90% of registered voters voted in 2004. The thinking that registering people will bring them to the polls looks to be pretty accurate, and thus the NVRA ultimately proved successful in increasing voter turnout.

There are too many barriers standing in the way of people who want to vote: The overall lack of same-day voter registration, the requirement of photo identification; the list goes on. While the NVRA is not the end-all solution to voting’s problems, its active approach in registering new voters does indeed bring people to the polls who otherwise may not have voted. If one of the goals here is to make it easier to vote, then the NVRA’s concept is a good one: make it so that people do not have to go out of their way to register. Think of the magazines in the check-out line at the grocery store, or the CDs at the Starbucks cash register. It’s there, you might want it, it doesn’t cost that much, so maybe you’ll take it; either way, it’s more convenient than having to go out of your way to get it. When the indifferent, unregistered voter goes to the DMV, maybe they’ll feel like registering – it’s certainly easier than having to out of their way to do it.

The concept of convenience, applied to the NVRA, should be applied in other contexts, specifically to colleges. At freshman orientation, when kids are checking into their dorms, registering for classes, etc., somebody should be there to offer them voter registration. As with Motor Voter, indifferent, unregistered students – apparently the most indifferent of all voters – will have an easier time registering themselves to vote. Hypothetically, with more students registered, more students will be politically engaged. Now that they have a personal stake in the election, you would think they would have to be.

There will be inherent problems with implementing such a “motor voter”-like program at college campuses, depending on the state’s voter registration laws. But the idea is worth exploring. If a vast majority of people who register end up voting, it’s worth exploring every way of making registering easier.