Turnout got you down? Blame motor voter

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.

  • valentinus

    The way around that is internet voting with the DNC controlled media as the arbiters of which ballots are valid.

  • HisRoc

    DC tried to implement Internet voting during preparation for the 2010 election cycle. They issued a challenge to hackers to test their contractor’s web site’s security. A computer science professor at the University of Michigan put a class of his undergrads to work on the problem and within a few hours they had hacked the web site. To prove that they had been there, they emailed DC voter officials to test the site by casting a trial ballot. When the “Vote” button was clicked, the site played the Michigan Wolverines Fight Song, “Hail to the Victors.” A security consultant said that if the Michigan students could embed the Java script and MP3 file to do that, they could have manipulated anything on the site. DC scraped the entire Internet voting project. $300,000 down the toilet.

  • Yeah, DMV voter registration. I’m from Oregon and want to register my car. I’m 18 years old. “Would you like to register to vote?”, “Yeah, sure man.”

    Election comes, election goes. Student moves on. Who’s in charege of purging these rolls? As they say, “Figure lie and liars figure.” These stats are meaningless.

  • While low voter turnout is an issue, I don’t think the motor voter law is really the culprit. Sure, it may have depressed the turnout rate for registered voters, but it increased the opportunity to vote, even if such opportunity isn’t acted on. Also, if you run the numbers, the distance between the actual number of voters prior to the law and then after is less than 270,000, and with swings of +/- approx. 75,000 between any given off year, it doesn’t seem that significant.

    What should be a concern is the number of people who vote as a percentage of the population of Virginia, not registered voters. The issue isn’t that someone was registered at the DMV and didn’t turn out, the issue is that a higher percentage of the population isn’t voting at all.

  • RickRyan

    I’m not convinced low voter turnout is necessarily a bad thing. I frequently encounter people who take no interest in their government. They don’t read. They get their “news” in passing from a liberal television infotainment program. They don’t know or don’t remember what any given politician did two years ago. The world is better off without them. I think a simple poll test might be in order. If you can’t name the incumbent, identify the candidates parties without seeing it on the ballot, or identify two or more of the “stated” positions of at least one candidate, maybe you shouldn’t be voting. Look what the “first time” voters did to us in 2008!

  • HisRoc


    I suspect that your comment is going to generate a lot of negative responses, including the predictable one about Literacy Tests being unconstitutional. But your point is well taken. During the debt ceiling crisis in Congress last summer I was reading an online article about it in the Washington Post. Some drooling window-licker who obviously had never passed 8th grade civics posted a comment to the effect that, “President Obama should dismiss all the Republicans in Congress.”

    Now, on the face of that, it was somewhere between silly and sad. But on further reflection it gave me pause. Practically every major authoritarian dictatorship in the West over the past two centuries has begun with a popular executive who convinced the voters that the national legislature was incompetent and disbanded it. From Franco dissolving Parliament after the Spannish Civil War, to Hilter’s disbanding of the Reichstag, to Putin emascalating the Russian Duma, dictatorship begins when an angry and uninformed population puts its trust in a solitary leader after losing confidence in the democratic institution of the legislature.

    Well, let’s see now. We have a chief executive who is best known for his oratory skills and political instincts rather than for his leadership and management abilities. We have a Congress that enjoys a 14% approval rating. And we have an angry and frustrated population demanding dramatic change.

    Are we getting close?

  • ToR

    There is no difference.

    Low registration and high turnout = high registration and low turnout. You pretty much have the same number of people voting. Making it difficult for someone to register to vote or to vote is not the answer.

    If you want to increase voting, move elections to Saturdays, extend voting hours, and yes, end gerrymandering. And for you tax hawks out there, what about a voter tax refund? That would get a lot of people to show up.

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