In a video sermon on the possibility there will be an election in a couple of weeks in which few voters will bother to show up, the RTD’s Jeff Schapiro rolls out the standard reasons why voter interest is so darned low.
Voter fatigue — because Virginia insists on holding some sort of election every year.
Gerrymander districts — because choosing one’s electorate rather than allowing them to choose you is part of an incumbent’s job.
And such and such. Virginia pols, like their slithery brethren elsewhere, have rigged the system to such a degree that catering to the base is all that’s required to gain and retain power. The result? Voters are turned off and important things, like raising the gas tax, are ignored in the General Assembly.
Knowing that this sort of safe, comfortable conventional wisdom is often blisteringly wrong, curiosity drove me to look at the voter turnout statistics from the State board of Elections. Sure enough, voter turnout in off-off year elections like this one barely cracks the 30 percent margin in this decade.
But things were different before 1996. Even in off-off year races, turnout was much higher than in recent years. What makes 1996 so special? The handy asterisk and note on the SBE page informs us of the following:
The National Voter Registration Act (“Motor Voter”) was implemented in Virginia beginning in March 1996. This Act allowed voter registration forms to be submitted through Department of Motor Vehicles offices and other designated agencies, or to be submitted by mail. Prior to NVRA, most applicants had to appear in person, before a registrar, in order to register. (Uniformed and Overseas voters were exempt from the in-person registration requirement.)
In other words, you had to do a little bit of work to get registered. Not much, but more than today. The result may be that more folks are registered to vote, which some believe is an unalloyed good. The downside is that many of them can’t be bothered with actually going to the polls.
Consider the turnout for the last off-off year election before Motor Voter in 1995. Of just over 3 million registered voters in the state, 52 percent actually voted.
Then go to 1999, the first off-off year election after Motor Voter. Just over 3.8 million people are registered to vote. Only 36 percent do so that November.
The sad thing is this was actually the high water mark for turnout in such elections. In 2003, voters rolls swelled to 4.2 million, but turnout fell to 30.8 percent. In 2007, the rolls expand to 4.5 million. Turnout slides to 30.2 percent.
And remember the long lines and immense enthusiasm surrounding the 2008 presidential race in the state? Voter rolls ballooned to over 5 million and tunrout was over 74 percent, the highest for a presidential contest since 1996.
But consider that in 1992, turnout was 84.5 percent, and only dipped below 80 percent once — in 1988.
Yes, gerrymandering can be a bad thing, and certainly, annual elections can depress turnout to one degree or another.
But if you’re looking for the real culprit behind a lack of voter turnout and enthusiasm, Motor Voter is the one.