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

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Rock the Vote, an organization that encourages young Americans to register to vote and participate in civic life, has faced similar, if less dramatic, reductions since 2008. For that election, Rock the Vote registered 2.25 million young people, but for the 2012 election cycle it has reduced its goals to 1.5 million new registrants. Chrissy Faessen, Rock the Vote’s vice-president of marketing and communication, said that the organization was able to spend only $3.5 million this year. In contrast, tax filings show Rock the Vote spent over $5.2 million in 2008.

Faesson said that Rock the Vote hoped to exceed its goal of 1.5 million new registrants, “but it does come down to resources in terms of how many people we can register…There is the reality that it is not exactly the same budget.”

“With our partners and coalitions in [Oregon], we [might]…have an impact on 15 percent of the problem.” While important, that is “not a solution; that’s maintenance work.”               — Caitlin Baggott, Bus Project Foundation

 The League of Women Voters, a volunteer driven organization, does not face budget problems of a similar scope, but as Jeanette Senecal, senior director of elections at the League told Remapping Debate, the League’s efforts are constrained by the need to find and train an adequate number of volunteers and to “have the staff capacity at the national office to then motivate and manage and work with the volunteers across the country.”

I reached out to two large foundations that have funded voter registration efforts in the past: the Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation. Open Society confirmed that it was not funding any voter registration work in this election cycle. It did not answer the question of why it stopped this funding, writing only in an emailed statement that “we have put more funds into nonpartisan voter education and engagement.”

The Ford Foundation did not provide a representative to interview in response to Remapping Debate’s request, but said in an emailed statement attributed to Cristóbal Alex, a program officer for the initiative that promotes electoral reform and democratic participation, that Ford sees “voter registration as the key that unlocks the door to democratic participation.” Overall, data on Ford’s website shows that the foundation has spent approximately $10.43 million this year on “promoting electoral reform and democratic participation,” including at least one grant of $750,000 (to Voto Latino) specifically for voter registration. A follow-up email asking the foundation to set forth the amounts spent specifically for voter registration in each of several recent election years went unanswered.


Costs and benefits of face-to-face registration efforts

The voter registration drives conducted by the Bus Project in Oregon and by community organizations trained and funded by Project Vote are done through face-to-face interactions between canvassers and people on the street. Baggott explained how it works: “A organizer can go out in the field and pretty predictably in the course of an hour get four registration cards…That is just as inefficient as it sounds, but that’s the way the work happens. And so we’ll send somebody out in the field for five hours and we hope they come back with 15 to 20 registration cards, and we then meticulously process and track and turn [them] into the county elections office. It is truly a slog; it’s the least efficient way we can possibly create a democracy. But that’s the system we have right now.”

Though Baggott suggested that the “more efficient thing to do is to change public policy” to eliminate structural barriers to participation, in the context of the current system, face-to-face voter registration is still “what we have found to be the most effective and the most cost effective way to do this work…I have not discovered and abandoned a more efficient method.”

Would universal registration mean universal participation?

In 2008, roughly eight out of nine registered voters went to the polls. But extrapolating the potential impact of universal registration from that fact, according to Donald P. Green, a political scientist at Columbia University, would be a serious mistake, akin to the “sort of logic that says you can grow taller by joining the basketball team.” A newly registered voter who remains unconnected to politics is still less likely to go to the polls than those already registered. Green estimated that “if we were to snap our finger and make an unregistered person registered,” it would result in “roughly a third to a half of a vote per additional registration.” Nevertheless, Green noted, generating those additional voters would represent a sizable increase over the current status quo.

States with election-day registration (EDR) confirm the measurable gains in voter turnout from reducing the registration barriers. Eight states currently offer EDR, meaning that residents can register at the same time they cast their ballot. One recent study suggests that this boosted voting in Wisconsin by 3 percent, while other estimates have placed the increase in turnout as high as 7 percent. In fact, five out of the top six states in voter turnout in the 2008 election were states that had implemented EDR.

To Rob Richie, at FairVote, the long-term strategy for engaging people in politics and drawing them to the polls will require, in addition to enacting universal registration procedures, a series of steps that make the prospect of participating in an election more attractive to more voters. As the system exists, he told Remapping Debate, “it is not irrational for some people to feel frustrated and not represented by the candidates” running for office at all levels. FairVote supports a variety of policies for combating this sentiment — including popularly electing the president, implementing proportional representation for congressional seats as a means to increase the diversity of candidates and ideas represented, and devoting more resources towards educating high school students on the importance of politics and participation. These proposals, Richie argued, would make “elections more interesting” and generate “the rules that create the motivation.”

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