Voter registration has long served as a barrier to voting, especially for Black and brown communities. States that minimize this barrier by allowing voters to register and vote on the same day are consistently among the highest turnout states in the nation. Existing research on the impact of Same Day Registration (SDR) generally looks at turnout rates overall and does not attempt to understand the policy’s potential benefit for specific racial and ethnic communities. Using voter turnout data across a sample of similarly situated states with and without SDR, we examine the role the policy may play in reducing barriers and boosting turnout for Black and Latinx Americans specifically. We find that states that have implemented SDR usually experience higher turnout among both Black voters and Latinx voters than similar states without SDR. While an array of factors influence turnout across place and time, our findings suggest that SDR may play an important role in minimizing the barrier that registration has long presented and in boosting turnout among Black and Latinx voters.
The story of American democracy is one of struggle—struggle to shed a narrow, racist vision of who counts as American and to ensure “we the people” actually means all of our people. That struggle has always been led by Black Americans and other Americans of color, and it has often centered on the right to vote. The right to vote is fundamental in a democracy. Yet, it has never been fully available to everyone. Our history is littered with restrictions on the franchise and barriers to the ballot box, most often aimed at Black and brown communities.
Voter registration keeps more people from voting than almost any other barrier.
Registration was created in part to prevent Black people, working people, and immigrants from voting in the late 19th century.
It has endured as a key tactic in the white supremacist strategy to prevent Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian American, and other communities of color from building durable governing power.
Black and brown Americans have been building power anyway, combating exclusionary voter registration laws, winning landmark reforms like the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), and achieving notable gains in political influence.
One of the most promising reforms won by organizers in some states is Same Day Registration (SDR). Through SDR, eligible people can register and vote at the same time, at the polls on or before Election Day. Pioneered in the 1970s, voters today can register through SDR in 21 states and Washington, D.C.
SDR eliminates a major obstacle to voting for all voters, but it may be particularly important for the Black and brown voters who have always been the targets of voter suppression.
In this paper, we analyze new data to understand the role SDR may play in reducing barriers and boosting turnout for Black and Latinx Americans. Our findings are largely encouraging. Among the 23 states and Washington, D.C. we examined—some of which have SDR, others of which do not—those that have implemented SDR often experience higher turnout among both Black voters and Latinx voters than do similarly situated states without SDR. While other factors influence turnout, these patterns suggest that SDR may play an important role in minimizing registration barriers and boosting turnout for Black and Latinx voters.
We find that:
- In states that have implemented SDR, Black voter turnout is usually higher than in states without SDR. Among the states we studied, with one exception in one year, Black voter turnout is on average 2-17 percentage points higher in SDR than in non-SDR states.
- The association between state implementation of SDR and Latinx voter turnout is less consistent and is complicated by the presence of non-SDR states with special contexts that favor very high turnout. However, once we take these considerations into account, Latinx voters in SDR states turned out at rates that were on average 0.1-17.5 percentage points higher than Latinx voters in similar non-SDR states studied.
Although we cannot estimate a precise causal effect of implementation of SDR, these findings suggest that SDR is a critical reform that should be implemented in every state. Especially as part of a larger package of voter registration reforms, including policies such as Automatic Voter Registration and Online Voter Registration, SDR can help scrub our political system of racist exclusions and advance a democracy in which all communities can participate.
Congress is currently considering such a transformative package in the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1), the most significant voting rights legislation in a half-century.
The voter registration reforms in this package, especially SDR, have an important role to play in helping to build the just, inclusive, multiracial democracy we envision. This is the democracy Black and brown communities have been fighting for since our nation’s founding – it’s time to finally make it real.
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