Do Voter Registration Drives Actually Make A Difference In The Capital Region?

'saratoga living' investigates how effective local drives are in getting voters to the polls for national elections.

Voter Registration
(Theresa Thompson/Flickr)

Even though National Voter Registration Day came and went last month, I still feel like I’m constantly being reminded about the ease with which I can register to vote. Whether through simple “swipe-up” features on social media sites or a viral video campaign led by the likes of former First Lady Michelle Obama, in 2018, registering to vote seems simple. So, say, I were to hypothetically sign up to vote. Would it really make a difference at the polls? I set out to find out how effective—or ineffective—these voter registration drives actually are.

As a Skidmore College student, it seems as though voter registration efforts are all the rage right now. Leading up to September 25 (a.k.a. National Voter Registration Day), there were countless posters hung up on the Skidmore campus, and multiple emails in my inbox telling me where and when I could register to vote. Most of these efforts were led by Skidmore senior Max Fleischman, the college’s Student Government Association (SGA) President, along with the rest of SGA and Robin Adams, Director Of Leadership Activities for the college. Fleischman explains that he was inspired to get involved with voter registration efforts after spending a semester studying in Washington, DC, where he was able to volunteer for the March For Our Lives rally there and saw “this incredible energy and drive [from my generation] to become more involved in politics.” This passion, as Max notes, translated into a “shockingly easy” process to put together voter registration drives on campus: “As soon as I started telling people about my plan to get Skidmore more involved in the midterms, usually they responded with, ‘How can I help?’”

This collective effort from Skidmore’s campus culminated in the college’s “Votemore” initiative, headed by the SGA, which included multiple voter registration drives, most of which took place on September 25. The main event, a voter registration drive that took place last Tuesday at Case Student Center, managed to get more than 100 people registered to vote. According to Adams, who worked closely with Fleischman and the SGA to put on these events, “It is an institutional obligation [to take] a shared interest in giving college kids an ability to use their voice [through voting].” Adams, who has worked at the college since 2004, says that getting people to register to vote is nothing new, but that this was the first year these sorts of events were put on through a multi-departmental and collaborative effort. Thrilled by both the turnout and the fact that there was “no shortage of volunteers” for the events, Adams is hopeful that the initiatives were powerful enough to signal to students that registering and voting are important, and that they really do have a voice. “We need to put it in people’s faces. If you hear and you see enough people talking about it, saying, ‘Are you registered to vote?’ then hopefully you’ll register. We need people of all walks of life to realize they have a voice and can use it through their ability to vote.”

A hopeful sentiment, indeed, but what about the people who truly believe that their vote doesn’t matter? Todd Kerner, Saratoga Democratic Committee Chair, doesn’t understand this point of view. “I don’t know how anyone—Democrats or Republicans—can be happy with what’s going on in Washington right now. There’s a White House in disarray. How does anyone stay home [on Election Day]?” Kerner explains how the Saratoga Democrats try to expand voter registration by educating Saratoga County on subject-matter such as election laws, absentee ballots, dates and deadlines, registering and changing parties. The Saratoga County Republican Committee, which could not be reached for comment, cites on its website efforts that include “keeping in regular contact with Republican voters in their community, organizing Republican voter turnout on Election Day and circulating nominating petitions for Republican candidates.” It’s unclear just how many of those people dot the Capital Region, but it’s something I hear about often.

However, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it seems that there will always be someone who believes her vote “doesn’t matter” or that the races are too one-sided to be worth voting in, an issue Skidmore political science professor Chris Mann cites as a major reason for a historically low voter turnout for the midterm elections. Not so surprisingly, voter turnout for the midterms is lower than presidential elections, with around 35 percent of the population showing up to vote in the midterms, compared to the usual 60 percent who cast a ballot on the presidential Election Day. According to Mann, “perception of competitiveness matters,” and he provides the example of how many people perceive that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will be reelected without much competitiveness. So there’s a sense that one’s vote won’t matter. Yet both Mann and Kerner point out that New York has several competitive seats that Democrats would need to win in order to shift control, so votes really do matter—and they will always be important for both parties if they’re looking to gain back control in certain years. Adds Mann: “There is also not a sense of how many decisions state legislators and local government officials make that will affect people’s lives. Adding to the fact that state senate races are not as advertised or given nearly as much attention and coverage as presidential ones, many people are simply not paying attention.”

Hence all the voter registration fury. In addition to social media campaigns, local registration drives and all those voting-related Public Service Announcements are trying to make it easier for their citizens to register to vote. Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia (DC), allow people to register on Election Day so that they can simply show up to the polls, register and cast a ballot all in one turn. This process makes it easier for anyone, including those who have recently moved or changed their name, to be eligible to vote without a time constraint. Thirteen states plus DC have enacted automatic voter registration, although some states are still waiting to have this process implemented. With automatic voter registration, instead of people having to actively seek out registration, the state will automatically register any citizen who interacts with certain permitted agencies, generally the Department of Motor Vehicles. Automatic registration makes it quite easy for those wanting to vote to do so, and citizens also have the option to opt out of being automatically registered if they so desire. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “By registering through a routine and necessary transaction, voters won’t have to worry about registration deadlines or application submissions. In a sense, they are automatically enfranchised.” And even without automatic or same-day registration, most states have procedures in place that allow eligible voters to vote early, whether through absentee ballots or during a specified early-voting timeframe. States also have procedures in place that allow citizens under 18 years old to register early, with 13 states (plus DC) allowing for registration as early as 16.

But does getting people registered easily—or just being registered, for that matter—ultimately make a difference at the polls? After all the voter registration efforts at Skidmore, Adams is hopeful: “We only got people to register; they still need to be the ones to go out and actually vote. But we did see so many people writing down their emails and phone numbers to receive reminders when it comes time for Election Day, so I hope people will go out and vote that day.” Research itself also points to the positive side. Pre-registration for young people has been found to have a positive effect on youth voter turnout, which is especially important given that turnout among the 18- to 29-year-old demographic is consistently lower than other age brackets. Being able to register on Election Day has also been found to increase voter turnout overall. And take a look at Oregon, a state that was able to implement automatic voter registration in time for the 2016 election: It was able to see both greater voter participation and diversity. “Not everyone registered to vote will vote, especially [in the] midterms,” says Mann. “But we know from gold-standard research that if people are registered, they are much more likely to vote, and that for every 100 new people registered, we’ll see 50 new voters at the polls. Often, there are people who get interested [in voting] but will miss a deadline and be shut out of voting. Voter registration efforts make it so that a set of people are being reached who normally wouldn’t engage [with voting] until it is too late.”

So, maybe there is something to all the video campaigns, social media efforts and voter drives happening in and around Saratoga Springs, not to mention nationally. And as long as there’s still that missing 40-60 percent of the population not present at the ballot box for presidential and midterm elections, these efforts will continue in full force—and for good reason.

Hannah Kotler
Hannah Kotler

Hannah Kotler is an Editorial Assistant at saratoga living magazine.

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