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New Report: Higher Voter Turnout Linked to SDR

Brenden Timpe

More data from the 2012 election is in, and it’s tough to deny that the health of democracy and safety of your voting rights vary widely depending on where you live.

That finding comes through clearly in a new report from Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that encourages nonprofits to engage voters. The report parses the latest data on the 2012 elections, and it should be required reading for the legion of state lawmakers considering changes to election laws this year.

Turnout on Election Day 2012 varied widely – from a robust 76.1 percent of the voting-eligible population in Minnesota to a paltry 44.5 percent in Hawaii. Of course, every state is unique, and many factors account for these differences. But you can tell a lot about a state’s turnout by asking one question: how easy is it for citizens to exercise their right to vote?

The effect is particularly clear when it comes to Same Day Registration. Voting rights advocates have long argued that no voter should lose their access to the ballot just because they missed a registration deadline, or because a paperwork error left them off the rolls. Any number of studies have found that turnout will get a boost if people can register on Election Day, and that argument is backed up by the new data.

Among states that allow residents to establish or update their registration the same day they vote, turnout was 71.3 percent on average – far above the 58.8 percent for the remaining states. Five of the Same Day Registration states appear in the top 10.

This effect can’t be explained away by other factors. For example, one useful predictor of voters’ inclination to participate was the margin in the presidential race – turnout was highest in the 10 swing states where the Obama and Romney campaigns battled most intensely. But even among these 10 swing states, the three that allow Same Day Registration easily beat out the others in turnout, with Colorado the only exception.

The report also demonstrates the value of early voting. Now available in 32 states and the District of Columbia, early voting alleviates the problem of long lines by spreading Election Day over a number of days or weeks. It also accommodates people who might otherwise be too busy to vote – like frequent travelers, single parents, or hourly workers who can’t afford to take a Tuesday off.

In fact, despite attempts to reduce early-voting opportunities in some states, the option has gotten more popular. As many as 40 percent of voters cast their ballots early in 2012 – whether in person or by an absentee process. Only 23 percent did so in 2004.

Contrast this trend with the picture in Florida, where efforts by the governor and other officials to restrict early voting led to lines as long as six hours at some polling stations. In many cases, these are the voters least able to deal with long waits – nearly half of voters over the age of 65 cast their ballots early, while only one-quarter of voters under 30 did so. It’s no wonder, then, that early votes fell from 32 to 29 percent of ballots cast in Florida, and the state’s overall turnout fell by 5.9 percent compared to 2008.

The message for policymakers is clear: If you want voters to participate, just take away the arbitrary hurdles that make it tougher to cast a ballot.