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

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Slater, too, agreed that face-to-face registration is the most advantageous for his organization, with its goals of registering marginalized groups, who may be more alienated from the process. Face-to-face registration is especially helpful in registering people who have not sought to do so at the Department of Motor Vehicles, by visiting the local board of elections, or by registering online (where available), and “do not think that not being registered is a problem that they should take action on their own to solve.”

Face-to-face registration: “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.” — Caitlin Baggott

When Remapping Debate asked whether a sidewalk table labeled “voter registration,” or a mobile voter truck along the lines of an ice cream or food truck might be more efficient than walking the street with a clipboard, Slater replied that ice cream is something people know they want, whereas, with the “product” of registering to vote, “what we are trying to do is to say, ‘Hey, I know you may not want to buy this product, but it is a really important product for you to have and here’s why, don’t you agree?’”

Donald Green, the political scientist, made a similar analogy to why face-to-face interaction helps in registering: “It is a little like a party, not a political party, but a social party. You often need an invitation to get people to come. For many people who are sort of on the periphery of the political system, unless someone comes to talk to them about the election, it is not going to be a priority.”


Alternatives to Face-to-Face

Another strategy for voter registration currently in use that is much cheaper is direct mail. Using the techniques and data collected by commercial firms, the Voter Participation Center (VPC) uses algorithms to identify likely unregistered voters and send them registration forms. The target is principally “Rising American Electorate,” composed of unmarried women; those other than white, non-Latinos; and citizens under 30. Using the visual, as well as methodological, techniques of commercial direct mail — with a quasi-official looking “final notice” written on the envelope — these efforts are much cheaper on a per-letter basis than face-to-face communications. Moreover, according to VPC’s chief operating officer, Gail Leftwich Kitch, using the mail is effective because of its “universal availability.”

“For many people who are sort of on the periphery of the political system, unless someone comes to talk to them about the election, it is not going to be a priority.” — Donald P. Green, a political science professor at Columbia University 

But Slater pointed out, although mail registration is “very efficient, very cost effective,” the fact is “you’ll simply never get the [necessary] number of people to open the mail and respond.” VPC claims a response rate of over 8 percent — very good compared to commercial direct mail — but that still means that the overwhelming number of those contacted do not respond. If, for example, one wanted to reach 2 million unregistered African Americans, Slater observed, “you’d have to put out 20 million pieces of mail. There aren’t 20 million unregistered African Americans out there,” thus making it unlikely to reach the goal. Direct mail and face-to-face registrations are not mutually exclusive, he said, but they do have different benefits and costs.

Rock the Vote, meanwhile, has perhaps been the most successful organization in recent years in using mass media and new media to reach unregistered voters. Starting in the early 1990s with its public service announcement featuring Madonna wrapped in a large American flag, the organization has used celebrities to help convince young people to register and turnout to vote. At the same time, Rock the Vote combines media appeals and an internet presence with face-to-face interactions, as it will this fall when it holds concert events on college campuses as part of its “Road Trip 2012” tour.


A surprising lack of data

Part of the difficulty in evaluating the effectiveness of various voter registration methods lies in the fact that little research on the relative merits of different techniques or on the overall impact of voter registration by political scientists that is available in the public domain. Donald Green told Remapping Debate, “The funny thing is that almost all of our experiments are on turnout, not registration.”

Moreover, what data has been collected is frequently not publicly available, as organizations are trying to hold onto what Green called the “secret sauce,” of which methods work for them in reaching their target audience.

Michael Slater of Project Vote agreed with Green that “there is certainly a set of proprietary data out there,” and, when asked whether Project Vote collected that kind of data, did not answer directly (he said only that the organization “does a lot of work to try and understand how to make our program effective.”).

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