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In Iowa, Voters Win with Same Day Voter Registration

Brenda Wright

Iowa caucus-goers are the subject of intense study in presidential elections. As we are seeing this year, they can have an outsize influence on presidential aspirations—not just for the first-place finishers, but for the close seconds or thirds, and any upsets in expectations. But, based on what happened Monday night, Iowa deserves a close look at its voter registration procedures as well—because we know that voter registration requirements can dramatically affect who will be heard and counted in our electoral process.

We know that excitement among many Iowans surged as caucus night approached. And the good news for voters was that Iowa is one of the growing number of states with Same Day Registration, which allows people to register and vote in a one-stop process. So people whose interest was piqued at the last minute by a call from a neighbor or a door-knock by a canvasser could make a last-minute decision to attend the caucus and participate—instead of getting the disappointing news that “Sorry, the voter registration deadline passed a month ago.”

Outlets like Fox News and the New York Daily News—not the most reliable supporters of electoral reform—noted the surge of voters and the impact of SDR. 

“As voters flocked to caucus locations throughout the state, reports emerged that turnout was so high in some precincts that officials ran out of voter registration forms... Same-day voter registration is legal in the state, meaning supporters can simply register before they caucus,” said the NY Daily News.

Fox News also took note (perhaps somewhat grudgingly) of how Same Day Registration can help insurgents—giving the example of Barack Obama in 2008, and connecting it to this cycle’s insurgents such as Trump and Sanders.

In 2008, a concerted effort by then-Sen. Barack Obama and massive voter interest helped increase Democratic turnout by almost double. It was the first ripple in what would be a wave that would take him to the nomination and the White House—and confirmation of his strategy that uses a community organizing approach enhanced by technology to change the political landscape.  .  .  .

.  .  .  .There is no indication of the massive surge in voter registrations that foretold Obama’s success, but Iowa has same-day registration and the raw energy and attention generated by Trump and Sanders in their respective parties can’t be discounted. (emphasis added).

Demos has supported Same Day Registration as a pro-voter reform since our founding. We see it as a powerful means to reduce the barriers to voting, by making registration and voting a one-stop process that doesn’t depend on navigating confusing pre-election deadlines. Our research shows that interest in participating and voting often peaks in just the final weeks before an election, but in states with outdated registration laws, the deadline for voter registration may already have passed. States with Same Day Registration, like Iowa, don’t have this problem, because SDR is a fail-safe for eligible persons to register and vote in a one-stop process.  States with SDR also consistently have higher voter turnout that states without it.

Iowas’s caucus process isn’t perfect for voters, of course: access for persons with disabilities, or with family or work responsibilities that preclude being there for several hours, can be a major fairness problem.  But at least antiquated voter registration deadlines don’t add to those barriers.

It is telling that Fox News might even grudgingly tout Same Day Registration as a means to translate “raw energy and attention” generated by campaigns into turnout on Election Day. When actors on all sides of the political equation start focusing on reforms that truly allow people to have their say, Same Day Registration rises to the top. That’s why Demos likes to say that “VOTERS Win with Same Day Registration.”