Some 3.4 million Americans signed up to vote thanks to a law letting them register by mail or while renewing a driver’s license. But the “motor voters” didn’t motor to the polls.
Turnout for last year’s presidential election dropped even as registration hit a record high, a Federal Election Commission study found.
In 1996, 73 percent of those old enough to vote were registered and only 49 percent cast ballots, the FEC said. Four years earlier, the comparable figures were 71 percent registered and 55 percent voting.
Nevertheless, supporters said, the national motor voter law passed in 1993 was effective.
“The law is about providing the opportunity,” said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “It’s up to our political system to provide the motivation to vote.”
The law requires most states to let people register at the local driver’s license bureau, when applying for welfare or disability benefits, and by mail.
Gans said there was no evidence that the change gave either Democratic or Republican candidates an edge, although the number of people registered as independents or third-party voters has risen.
The FEC said voter registration increased from about 71 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 1996. That was the highest registration level since reliable record keeping began in 1960.
The biggest increase was in the South, where states were less likely to already have either motor voter or mail-in registration.
Nationally, 136.8 million people were registered, excluding those believed to have moved to a different district, the FEC said.
That falls well short of the 90 percent goal some advocates set for the motor voter law, based on the number of Americans who have a state license either to drive or for identification.
But FEC election specialist Brian Hancock said the 2-point jump was impressive since the changes had been in effect less than two years.