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 does post some “best practices” about reaching young voters on its website, but also, said Chrissy Faessen, collects data to answer questions such as what type of interactions used by the organization are most effective and what percentage of those it registers actually turn out to vote. Those data, Faessen said, are shared with community partners and other voter registration organizations, but not necessarily with the public.

Some organizations simply don’t have adequate data. Jeanette Senecal, at the League of Women Voters, said the League still targets unregistered Americans at naturalization ceremonies and at high schools — places where “we still know there are large numbers of unregistered people” — because a lack of data has prevented the organization from identifying additional targets for registration.


Is it really all about the money?

“Voter registration drives,” according to Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, “are a necessary part of that [reaching out to voters], but they are not sufficient.” She suggested to Remapping Debate that while, “we need them out there,” it was also important to have “government policies that help us capture more of those voters.”

The role of voter ID laws

Within this election cycle voter registration organizations also face the task of alerting new registrants to the requirements of state voter identification laws, measures that, according to Lee Rowland, represent “hoop[s] that we are asking voters to jump through.”

Rock the Vote, for example, is addressing these hoops by making them the central theme in the media messages it propagates this fall. Calling its campaign “We Will,” it features slogans like, “They want us to be silent, we will be heard,” and “they want us to back down, we will be brave.”

According to Chrissy Faessen, Rock the Vote’s media campaign will highlight the argument that “there are attempts out there to keep young people away” in order to “make sure they are aware of that.”

Indeed, most everyone Remapping Debate spoke with said that the elimination of structural barriers was of crucial importance. But when challenged on how to make the current structure work better for more people, they agreed that underfunding was the single greatest problem.

There are, however, additional challenges facing voter registration groups. Michael Slater, of Project Vote, said that groups doing voter registration are faced with the problem of not only how much money they have access to, but when they receive it. “There is a tendency to invest a lot of resources in an election year and then find that there’s not as much money left after the election…What we’re talking about is how philanthropic dollars are being used.”

For newly registered voters, Slater said, “The best thing to do after an election is invest money…to help them channel their interest in voting into getting outcomes.” After elections take place, Slater pointed out, “The real battle is fought…when legislation has to get passed and budgets are developed.”

But the fall-off in funding in non-election years, Slater continued, means that, after an election, groups “don’t continue to invest in building the capacity and expertise of those voters who have come out in response to their election year programs.”


Research assistance: Samantha Cook

Editor’s note: An important and obvious question — unfortunately beyond the scope of this story — concerns the role of partisan registration drives. Historically, political parties played a central role in registering voters, but that role has generally declined. We hope to address this issue in a future article.

On Sept. 13, 2012, this article was corrected by clarifying the meaning of the paragraph concerning the Bus Project Foundation’s target audience. 


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