Modernize Voter Registration

“I challenge every other state in this nation to examine their policies and to find ways to ensure there are as few barriers as possible for citizens’ right to vote.”

OREGON GOVERNOR KATE BROWN, WHEN SIGNING AUTOMATIC VOTER REGISTRATION INTO LAW448

 

THE PROBLEM

Voting is critical to the health of our democracy. Voter registration is the on-ramp to participating in elections, but the registration system can be complicated and daunting, and does not ease participation in our democracy. Initiating or updating voter registration is often a serious roadblock for people who move frequently, those who speak English as their second language, individuals with disabilities, and people whose background and education may not have exposed them to the voting process. 

Nearly 1 in 4 eligible voters in the United States is not registered to vote.449 Lower registration rates among historically marginalized communities today reflect the long history of exclusion from our democracy. For example, the registration rate for eligible Latinx voters in 2016 was just 57 percent, nearly 20 points behind the registration rate for whites.450 Low-income Americans are also disproportionately impacted. Unregistered individuals in households making less than $15,000 per year are twice as likely as those making $75,000 or more to say they are not registered to vote because they do not know how or where to register.451

More than 60% of eligible voters report having never been asked to register to vote.452  This means that for the majority of eligible voters, the burden of navigating complicated voter registration procedures is on them. Arbitrary voter registration deadlines and outdated voter registration systems that rely on paper application forms add unnecessary layers of red tape and confusion to the process in many states. In states with voter registration cutoffs, even if a would-be voter tracks down a voter registration application, they may not realize that they will not be added to the rolls or permitted to vote if they register after the cutoff date. Often these deadlines come well before election season reaches its peak in the weeks leading up to the general election, when campaigns and news around an election are heating up and interest in the election is higher.453

Our antiquated voter registration systems lead to problems for Americans who are already registered as well. People who register in advance of an election can find themselves left off the rolls when they show up to vote, due to mistakes in processing from illegible handwriting, outdated scanners, and human data entry errors. People who have moved are often surprised to show up to the polls only to discover they are not on the voter roll because their voter registration did not move with them. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, 22 million voting-age Americans moved within their state, many not knowing they were required to re-register to vote at their new address.454

Registering—and staying registered—to vote does not need to be this hard. That’s why a growing number of states are adopting pragmatic, bipartisan reforms to modernize voter registration infrastructure to ensure that every eligible voter has an equal opportunity to exercise her fundamental right to vote.

 

POLLING AND DATA

  • 54% of Americans support automatic registration,455 where government agencies like the DMV register eligible citizens to vote after confirming their eligibility based on information they are already receiving.
  • 55% of Americans support laws that allow people to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballot.456

 

POLICY SOLUTIONS

Modernize voter registration to remove red tape and make it cost effective, accurate, and secure.

  • Offer an accessible, online registration system where eligible people can register to vote, update their voter registration, and check their voter registration status. As of the end of 2017, 37 states and the District of Columbia offered online voter registration (OVR),457 and most states have some means for voters to look up their voter registration status online. OVR is a cost-effective way to offer voters the convenience of registering on a computer or smartphone and to maintain accurate and up-to-date voter lists.458 To be inclusive and accessible to the broadest range of eligible voters, an online registration system should:
    • Be offered in all languages required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and pursuant to any state language-assistance laws.
    • Be fully accessible to people with vision impairment and other disabilities.
    • Incorporate technology that can capture and accept an electronic signature so that people who lack state-issued identification have a way to provide a signature on their online voter registration application;459 or, explore other means of providing a signature, such as letting the individual sign at the polling place when they vote.
  • Automate your state’s voter registration infrastructure so that eligible citizens are registered to vote—and registrations are automatically updated—when they interact with state agencies. 
    The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) already requires most states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle offices, public assistance agencies, and offices serving people with disabilities. Across the country, states are taking additional simple steps to modernize existing state agency voter-registration infrastructure to make registration more convenient and accurate, including:
    • Building systems that incorporate seamless voter registration opportunities into online agency transactions and allow for the secure electronic transfer of voter information to elections officials. These systems eliminate costs and problems associated with the transmission and processing of paper registration forms and improve the accuracy and integrity of state voter rolls.
    • Shifting to Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), which uses information already on file with government agencies to identify individuals who are eligible to register to vote and add them to the voter rolls or update their voter information in a seamless, paperless process. Adopting AVR increases voter registration rates, ensures that voter registration rolls are updated when voters move within the state, and reduces the potential for inaccuracies including voter errors. When designing AVR, precautions must be taken to ensure that individuals who are not eligible to vote, including non-citizens, are not registered, and to provide clear, accessible, and well-delivered opt-out provisions.
  • Expand the state and local government agencies offering voter registration. Under the NVRA, states may designate agencies to offer voter registration services in addition to DMVs, public assistance agencies, and agencies serving people with disabilities. This is an opportunity for states to think expansively about bringing more people into the political process. States like Ohio have designated public high schools and universities, public libraries, and county treasurers’ offices as NVRA agencies. In 2013, California became the first state to designate its health benefit exchange as an NVRA agency. States should also designate corrections agencies, including parole boards and probation offices, as voter registration agencies.460 Even states that are not covered by the NVRA can mandate that designated state and local agencies offer voter registration.461

 

The NVRA’s 25th Anniversary

The NVRA has been around for 25 years, but sometimes old laws get neglected. Make sure your state has strong NVRA policies, training, and tracking to ensure all required agencies are offering voter registration. Or take advantage of the NVRA’s 25th anniversary to modernize NVRA compliance! Automating the voter registration process at state agencies will ensure seamless registration and verification that increases voter registration rates, improves the integrity of our elections, and eliminates problems and costs associated with handwritten registration forms.

 

  • Allow voters to register to vote and cast a ballot during early voting and on Election Day. Same Day Registration (SDR) and Election Day Registration (EDR) eliminate the bureaucratic hurdles of voter registration deadlines, allow registration issues to be fixed on site, and modernize our registration process to better serve the needs of a busy and mobile society. Implemented in some states in the 1970s, SDR is not a new concept. As of 2018, 16 states and the District of Columbia have adopted SDR.462 Most states that offer SDR not only allow people to register to vote and cast their ballot in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day during early voting, but also allow people to register and vote on Election Day itself.
  • Pre-register eligible 16- and 17-year-olds and automatically add them to voter rolls when they turn 18. Engaging potential voters at a young age is a successful way to increase voter registration, not just in the short term but also over a lifetime. People who begin voting at an early age are more likely to stay engaged. Pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote can be an important first step to engaging young adults. Twelve states and the District of Columbia allow pre-registration starting at 16, and an additional 4 states allow pre-registration of 17-year-olds.463
  • Send election officials to USCIS ceremonies to register newly naturalized citizens. While 71.2 percent of all US-born citizens reported being registered for the November 2016 elections, only 61.7 percent of naturalized citizens did.464 Sending state election officials to naturalization ceremonies can be an important first step to engaging new citizens.


Equal Access for All Eligible Voters
When developing and implementing reforms to modernize voter registration and voting, include community-based groups and experts working on immigrants’ rights, language access, and access for people with disabilities. Working with impacted communities will help ensure that modernized systems are inclusive of people who have historically been left out of the process, and that safeguards are in place to protect noncitizens from inadvertent registration.

HOW TO TALK ABOUT IT

  • Making voter registration inclusive and accessible advances our democratic values of freedom, equality, and fairness. When voter registration is harder, we create unnecessary obstacles for Americans to exercise their fundamental freedom and civic responsibility. Every eligible voter should have an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy and make their voices heard in our elections.
  • Modernizing voter registration is a commonsense solution with bipartisan support across the U.S. States across the country are enacting laws to modernize voter registration. Modernization makes voter registration more secure and less complicated for all eligible voters, while also easing costs and burdens placed on elections officials. States should implement commonsense solutions that take advantage of technology we use in our everyday lives to help make voter registration more accessible and secure. Every eligible voter should have an equal opportunity to choose their elected officials. 
  • Modernized voter registration improves the accuracy and integrity of our voter rolls. We need policy solutions that safeguard our election system. Modernized, automated voter registration improves the accuracy and security of our voting rolls by making it easier to verify voters and ensuring consistency across jurisdictions. Together, we can pass reforms to ensure that every eligible voter gets a fair chance to exercise their right to vote.

 

HOW IT WORKS

  • Modernized registration systems increase voter registration rates, including in historically marginalized communities. When voter registration is accessible, registration numbers climb. For instance, in the 10 years following Pennsylvania’s elimination of paper registration at its motor vehicle offices, the voter registration rate quadrupled.465 Oregon’s new law that automatically registers people who interact with its Office of Motor Vehicles added 272,000 people to the voter rolls in its first year. These newly registered voters were more likely to live in racially diverse areas and lower- and middle-income areas, and 40 percent were under the age of 30.466
  • Modernized voter registration systems increase voter turnout. States with Same Day Registration (SDR) have the highest voter turnout rates in the nation, achieving turnout rates up to 7 to 10 percentage points higher than states without SDR.467 In 2016, the 6 states with the highest turnout were all states with SDR.468 Policies like pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds likewise have a demonstrated impact on turnout. In 2008, pre-registered young voters in Florida turned out at a rate 4.7 percent higher than young voters who registered after turning 18.469
  • Modernized registration systems increase the security and accuracy of the voter rolls. In a 2016 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, elections officials in all of the 5 states studied reported that online voter registration improved the accuracy of their voter registration rolls, with 1 state reporting this was the greatest benefit to online registration.470  Officials also report that electronic transmission of data from DMVs to elections officials increases accuracy by eliminating problems associated with deciphering illegible handwriting on paper forms.471 In states like Michigan and Kentucky, DMV data-sharing allows for automated updates of changes of address.472
  • Modernized registration systems are cost effective. Switching to an online voter registration system can save states hundreds of thousands of dollars. For instance, Washington State reports costs savings of $0.25 for each online registration, with an additional $0.50 to $2.00 per registration saved at the county level.473 Allowing voters to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day reduces costs associated with processing provisional ballots. After SDR was adopted in Iowa, provisional ballots dropped from 15,000 in the 2004 presidential election to less than 5,000 in 2008—a 67 percent decline.474 North Carolina saw 23,000 fewer provisional ballots after it adopted SDR in 2008.475

 

MORE RESOURCES

 

ENDNOTES


448. Shelby Sebens, “Oregon Governor Signs Sweeping Automatic Voter Registration into Law,” Reuters, March 16, 2015 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-oregon/oregon-governor-signs-sweeping-automatic-voter-registration-into-law-idUSKBN0MC27F20150316

449. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered to Vote?, June 21, 2017, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2017/06/why-are-millions-of-citizens-not-registered-to-vote.

450. United States Census Bureau, Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016 (Table 4b), May 2017, https://census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html.

451. J. Mijin Cha, Registering Millions: The Success and Potential of the National Voter Registration Act at 20, Demos, March 2013, p.4, http://demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/RegisteringMillions-NVRA-Demos.pdf.

452. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered?

453. Amicus Brief for Demos & other amici, Chelsea Collaborative et al., v. William F. Galvin, as Secretary of Commonwealth, available at https://aclum.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Amicus-Brief-for-Demos-Rock-the-Vote-SEIU-Mass-State-Counsel....pdf (citing, e.g., Alex Street et. al., Estimating Voter Registration Deadline Effects with Web Search Data, 23 Pol. Analysis 225, 225 (2015)).

454. J. Mijin Cha & Liz Kennedy, Millions to the Polls, 2014.

455. YouGovUS, Americans: Make voting easier, not mandatory, March 30, 2015, https://today.yougov.com/news/2015/03/30/make-voting-easier-not-mandatory/.

456. YouGovUS, Americans: Make voting easier, not mandatory.

457. National Conference of State Legislatures, Online Voter Registration, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx.

458. Caroline Allen, Marian Schneider & Katherine Culliton-González, The Time Tax: America’s Newest Form of Voter Suppression for Millennials, and How it Must be Eliminated to Make Voting Accessible for the Next Generation, Advancement Project & OurTime.org, Nov. 18, 2013, p.15, https://advancementproject.org/resources/the-time-tax/

459. For example, Missouri allows people registering to vote online to upload a signature using a mobile device, a tablet computer or a touchscreen computer. See National Conference of State Legislatures, Online Voter Registration, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx.

460. See, e.g., Rhode Island Board of Elections, Rhode Island Agency-Based Voter Registration, 2011, at p. 4.  http://www.elections.ri.gov/publications/Election_Publications/Voter_Registration/2011%20RI%20Agency%20Voter%20Reg%20Manual.pdf

461. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 201.162 (1987) (“The commissioner or chief administrative officer of each state agency or community-based public agency or nonprofit corporation that contracts with the state agency to carry out obligations of the state agency shall provide voter registration services for employees and the public.”). 

462. National Conference of State Legislatures, Same Day Voter Registration.

463. National Conference of State Legislatures, Preregistration for Young Voters, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/preregistration-for-young-voters.aspx.

464. “Table 11. Reported Voting and Registration Among Native and Naturalized Citizens, by Race, and Region of Origin:  November 2016,” Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016, United States Census Bureau, May 2017, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html.

465. Holly Maluk, Myrna Perez, & Lucy Zhou, Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Update, 2015, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Voter_Registration_Digital_Age_2015.pdf.

466. Rob Griffin, Paul Gronke, Tova Wang, & Liz Kennedy, Who Votes with Automatic Voter Registration?, June 7, 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2017/06/07/433677/votes-automatic-voter-registration/.

467. Nonprofit Vote, America Goes to the Polls 2016, p. 11, http://www.nonprofitvote.org/documents/2017/03/america-goes-polls-2016.pdf; Project Vote, Same Day Registration, Feb. 2015, http://www.projectvote.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/SameDayFactSheet-PV-Feb2015.pdf. See also National Conference of State Legislatures, Same Day Voter Registration, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/same-day-registration.aspx#HowSDRWorks (studies also show intrastate increases in voter participation: “Multiple studies place the effect between an increase of 3 to 7 percent, with an average of a 5 percent increase”).

468. Nonprofit Vote, America Goes to the Polls 2016, p. 6.

469. J. Mijin Cha & Liz Kennedy, Millions to the Polls, 2014.

470. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections, June 2016, GAO-16-630, p. 16, https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/678131.pdf.

471. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections at p. 23.

472. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Issues Related to Registering Voters and Administering Elections at p. 24.

473. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Online Voter Registration (OLVR) Systems in Arizona and Washington: Evaluating Usage, Public Confidence and Implementation Processes, April 1, 2010, p. 122, http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2010/onlinevoterregpdf.pdf.

475. Demos, Same Day Registration Explainer.