PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS The Progressive Turnout Project has a query for some magazine subscribers.

Some Nevadans are receiving email messages asking them if they want a vote-by-mail option. The mailing provides yes and no buttons for recipients to push.

It’s uncertain how truly interested the senders were in the opinions of the recipients. The mailing sounds all good-government, but the senders are Progressive Turnout Project, which turns out to also be Progressive Turnout Project Political Action Committee—and it won’t accept the recipient’s vote unless he or she first provides an email address, which will likely result in appeals for money. (The mailing list was obtained from a political magazine.)

The mailing reads in part, “Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C. allow voters to vote by mail if they prefer (similar to absentee voting but no excuse is needed). In those states, every voter who requests to is sent their ballot in the mail several weeks before election to fill out and send back.”

Sounds nonpartisan, but the plot thickens at the PTP’s website, where there is verbiage like this:

“The 2014 election had the lowest turnout in 70 years, and Democrats didn’t just lose. We got crushed. That’s not a coincidence. Progressive Turnout Project is a grassroots Political Action Committee (PAC) proudly dedicated to doing what Democrats do best—connecting with voters one on one and getting Democrats to the polls in the general election. Progressive Turnout Project exists because, to us, turning out Democratic voters shouldn’t be something campaigns always talk about but never truly invest in. In the wake of Citizens United, Democratic candidates have been scrambling to respond to an onslaught of attack ads from billionaires like the Koch brothers. Instead of only responding to negative ads with negative ads, we need to be using the power of an army of trained field representatives to overcome that onslaught and win elections again.”

So having established that this is a partisan project, it’s still worth examining whether making it easier to vote will increase turnout. The history of such initiatives does not provide a lot of evidence that it does—or, for that matter, that making it easier to vote helps Democrats.

In 1987, the Nevada Legislature approved a program in which people could register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles, probably the government office they were most likely to visit.

When the program became operational, the new registrations were mostly Republican. Democrats who had pushed Motor Voter—as it was called—through the legislature over GOP opposition were taken aback. Some Democrats, such as Clark County Assemblymember Myrna Williams, talked about repealing the program, an option that was never taken up, since it would have undercut the party’s claim to have enacted the measure in the first place for altruistic reasons.

In 1988, a presidential election year, there was a slight upturn in turnout from 1984—1.9 percent—but Nevada still did not even come close to breaking the 50 percent of eligible voters mark. It topped out at 44.

As Michael Hanmer wrote in Discount Voting (2009), “Although Nevada opted for motor voter without prompting from the federal government and the room for improvement in turnout was substantial, the citizenry did not respond. … [M]ore than the good intentions of elected officials to remove barriers to registration is needed to engage those on the outside.”

Opponents of ease of voting quickly seized on the numbers.

“Despite the motor voter program in Nevada, the state finds itself among only a handful of states in which under 70 percent of eligible voters are registered to vote,” wrote U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, a Nevada Republican, in an essay for the Scripps Howard Newspapers. “Proponents concede, as the figures from my state indicate, that this legislation will not increase voter turnout. Why then are we going to spend more than $50 million for the sole purpose of adding names to the voter rolls? There is evidence to suggest that voter registration procedures are not a significant factor in low voter participation. A recent CBS-New York Times poll of non-voters showed that 97 percent of non-voters gave reasons other than problems with the voter registration process as reasons for not voting. One has to wonder how this legislation is going to increase participation.”

Nevada’s experience was duplicated in other states. Registrations rose dramatically, but actual voting only slightly, if at all.

Nevertheless, Democrats kept reinvesting in Motor Voter. In 1993, Congress made Motor Voter mandatory in all states. The first presidential election in which it had an effect was 1996. The two previous elections had seen very poor national turnout—50.1 (1988) and 55.2 (1992). With the full force of Motor Voter in 1996, turnout went down, to 49 percent. In 2000 it was 51.2. In 2004, 56.7. The 58.23 in 2008 has been the high point since Motor Voter went national—and it dropped back to 54.87 percent in 2012.

Still, Democrats pursued ease of voting tactics—early voting, same-day registration. Early voting was heavily used in Nevada, but did little for turnout. Most recently, California enacted a pretty rigid program. Starting this month, Californians are being registered to vote whether they want to be or not, when they obtain or renew a driver license.

Once again, the motives for promoting these changes are not always good government. An official of a group called Alliance San Diego told KPBS, “Having more people in the voter database allows us to contact more people and give them the information.”

Nevada political analyst Fred Lokken said of Motor Voter, “I just don’t see how it’s going to help voter turnout.” He said changes like California’s mandatory registration are “draconian and inappropriate.”

Nevertheless. while Motor Voter and early voting may not have boosted turnout, other techniques like voting by mail and same day registration have shown more promise than the earlier changes.

“Oregon has had great success with voting by mail,” Lokken said. “It’s a different kind of voting experience.”

Does society even have an interest in getting more people to vote? A character in The West Wing television series said, “And why is that good? Why are we eager, why are we encouraging a group of people who are so howl-at-the-moon, lazy-ass stupid that they can’t bring themselves to raise their hands? Why is it important that they be brought into the process?”

Lokken said while it can be argued that only the motivated should be accommodated, in fact low income people are often burdened by multiple jobs and family lives that make it difficult for them to participate. Elite groups tend to assume that everyone knows how to register and vote, not realizing that registration can be a major obstacle.

In addition, the political parties—including the Democrats—can be obstacles, he said. They like having voting lists that are used for voter education and turnout drives, though they make the process more burdensome.

“I think in Nevada there has always been an effort to make sure that just the right people vote,” Lokken said.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...