National Voter Registration Day took place this past Tuesday, six weeks before Election Day on Nov. 4. In other words, folks around the nation celebrated the equivalent of a college professor having a “don’t forget to turn in your paper in six weeks” day.
The national day was established in 2012 by the League of Women Voters and, since then, has registered more than 350,000 people to participate in America’s elections. As far as party lines go, it is a day strongly favored by Democrats, who have consistently shown stronger support than Republicans. The GOP has instead tended to engage in an effort to make it more difficult to register to vote through restrictive requirements.
As usual, both parties have entirely missed the point in their respective strategies. In the Democrats’ effort to register voters and the Republicans’ effort to prevent that process, both parties have overlooked a glaring problem: Registering voters might increase the number of people who vote, but it does not increase the number of people who care.
In the long run, this nation needs more people who care.
Two things determine whether or not someone will vote: convenience and motivation. Motivating excited voters is a better strategy across the board because out of the two factors, it is more important. Consider this hypothetical percentage-based breakdown: Motivation, which boils down to a basic question of caring about politics, makes up 80 percent of someone’s decision to vote while convenience, which encompasses registration, access to polling places and the like, makes up only about 20 percent.
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign is a prime example. The overwhelming majority of the campaign’s success in increasing voter turnout (and going on to win the election) was not due to registering so many people to vote, but rather because they had a remarkably motivated base of Democratic voters.
Census data released after the 2008 election showed that 48.5 percent of those aged 18-24 voted in the election. In 2012, census data showed that only 41.2 percent of citizens between those ages voted (but used a range of 18-25) in the election.
The decline in voter turnout is certainly not because 9 percent of young voters suddenly became “unregistered” to vote between 2008 and 2012. They remained registered — but their motivation dwindled.
People who vote because they feel motivated to are much more invested in the State of our Union than people who vote for the sake of convenience. For one, those people are more likely to stay engaged with their government and start conversations that will make elected officials’ decision more meaningful. Second, those people are more likely to make a more informed vote — imagine a world in which a huge number of people are registered to vote on National Voter Registration Day, but have no idea who the candidates are or what issues they represent. Are those really the people we want to register to vote in this country?
Inspiring people to care about politics is a catch-all solution because an inspired citizen who isn’t registered to vote is more likely to register, and an inspired registered voter is more likely to vote. On the other hand, a voter who is already registered gains nothing from the massive efforts put forth by National Voter Registration Day because it is too far away from Election Day.
Here’s a solution. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that same-day registration is only offered by 10 states and the District of Columbia. To vote in an election as a citizen of any other state, one has to register prior to a deadline, with most falling between eight and 30 days before the election. Implementing same-day registration will both register more voters and inspire voters to vote because motivational messages can be incorporated.
Republican-backed laws that require voters to obtain government identification have been shown to disproportionately hurt minorities, who are less likely to be able to obtain an ID. They are implemented under the guise of preventing voter fraud, which is also shown to be of negligible importance. But the line should be drawn at over-focusing on voter registration at the expense of motivation — because winning the hearts and minds of citizens is more important than just collecting their signatures on a registration form.
Nathaniel Haas is a junior majoring in political science and economics. His column, “State of the Union,” runs Fridays.