Underfunding of voter registration: a guarantee that 25 percent or more of Americans won’t participate

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Non-partisan voter registration organizations, while proud of their efforts, are conscious of their limited ability to reach the still-large unregistered population. They say that a critical problem they face in doing their work is a lack of available money. According to Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote, a national organization that submitted 1.3 million registration applications, “I don’t see any sorts of funding that would allow a coalition of organizations working together to get…registration to the level that we need. I mean could we really boost registration in Ohio working together? Absolutely. But [all] across the country? No. No one’s in that position.”

“I don’t see any sorts of funding that would allow a coalition of organizations working together to get…registration to the level that we need” — Michael Slater, Project Vote

Caitlin Baggott, the executive director of the Bus Project Foundation, a smaller non-partisan group that seeks to engage young people in politics, and whose work includes registering young voters in Oregon, described “non-profit organizations and community groups [as] scrap[ing] together meager funds to register what truly ends up being a drop in the bucket [among younger] voters each election cycle, while literally millions of Americans are eligible to vote but don’t know how, where, or when to register or vote in an election.” That system, she said, “is fundamentally broken and unsustainable for the health of our democracy.”

More concretely, among the Bus Project Foundation’s target audience in Oregon (those under age 35), Baggott calculated that there are between 400,000 and 500,000 unregistered voters in the state, of which the organization will hope to register 15,000 before the election in November. She estimated that “with our partners and coalitions in the state, we might get 67,000 [registered] which means that we have an impact on about 15 percent of the problem.” While that is an important effort, Baggott said, that is still “not a solution; that’s maintenance work.”

When Remapping Debate asked what it would take to register double that figure — registering 100,000 young voters in the state — Baggott replied quickly: “a million dollars.” Such money, she said, is seldom forthcoming. Generally, “there is no money for it.”

Baggott’s experience with the difficulty in raising money is not unique. Project Vote, the large national voter registration organization, commanded a budget of $18 million for voter registration during the 2008 election cycle. For the current election, Project Vote’s director, Michael Slater, said that far less funding was now available, and that the organization expected to spend just $2 million on voter registration: “We are not doing very much field registration this year. I would like to be doing a lot more.”

Project Vote had relied on ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) to carry out much of its registration in 2008. ACORN, now defunct, met its end in 2010 when donors and the federal government withdrew funding after a conservative activist produced a video that seemed to show wrongdoing by low-level ACORN staff members. Slater argued to Remapping Debate that the Project Vote’s previous relationship with ACORN did not scare away donors from Project Vote, but the demise of ACORN “took out what had been a widely trusted vehicle to do voter registration on a large scale.”

Who are the unregistered? Why?

Rates of registration vary considerably among different segments of American society. Being young or having recently moved are the two most common characteristics of unregistered voters. These factors make it easy to slip through the cracks in the current registration system. Educational attainment, family income, and race also reveal variations in registration.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2008,” a report issued this July and drawn from its Current Population Survey, 58.5 percent of 18-24 year olds were registered, a figure lower than all other age groups (those older than 75 had a registration rate of 76.5). 72 percent of whites and 69 percent of African-Americans reported being registered, compared with 55.3 percent of Asians and 59.4 percent of Latinos. 85 percent of those with advanced degrees (beyond a four-year college degree) were registered, compared to 50.5 of those who had not completed high school. Those with family income of over $100,000 reported 84.8 percent registration, compared to 63.7 among those families earning less than $20,000.

The Census Bureau asked respondents to choose the reason they were unregistered, and found that 46 percent were “not interested in the election/not involved in politics,” 14 percent “did not meet registration deadlines,” and 8.6 percent were “not eligible to vote.”

By contrast, a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey conducted in 2006 and released in “Who Votes, Who Doesn’t, and Why,” reported a substantially lower percentage of people claiming a lack of interest in politics than did the Census Bureau. After asking unregistered voters why they had not registered in an open-ended question format, the Center found that “no single dominant reason emerges.” Top answers included, “no time or just haven’t done it” (19 percent), “recently moved” (17 percent), and “don’t care about politics” (14 percent).

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