New York, NY — Advocates for democracy had one strong reason to cheer on election night: higher voter turnout, especially among youth, reversed a decades-old trend of low electoral participation. Although they are still counting votes in almost every state, it is clear that about 120 million will have voted in the election — an increase of 15 million voters from 2000.
Once again, the states leading the country in voter participation all have one thing in common: they allow voters to register to vote on Election Day. Election Day registration (EDR) makes it possible for new voters, the recently relocated, and those whose registrations were incomplete or lost, to participate without unnecessary hurdles. So far only residents of Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming have access to the wide-reaching benefits of EDR.
"Three years ago when we released our first report on Election Day registration, we found that one of its signal promises was the prevention of the system failures you saw in Florida and elsewhere in 2000," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos, a national non-partisan election reform group. "One of the lessons learned in 2004, so far, is that Election Day registration fulfilled its promise of increasing voter turnout and reducing barriers to participation, and it's time more than six states followed suit."
In a preliminary nationwide analysis of the 2004 Election, Demos found promising numbers in states with Election Day registration - from turnout that exceeded the national average by 14% to far fewer provisional ballot and voter registration problems than plagued most states.
The numbers from the six EDR states tell the story. While the increase in turnout this year is a good sign for democracy, the number of problems recorded in most states show that we still have unacceptable flaws in our system that amount to increased barriers to voting," said Sarah Tobias, co-author of Expanding the Vote, Demos' first report on EDR. "The consistently higher participation rates, and fewer errors, recorded in EDR states show us that there is a better model for fair elections right here in the US."
Some of the preliminary findings from the 2004 Election include:
° Over 14% more eligible voters cast ballots in EDR states than in non-EDR states: 72.5% of eligible voters in EDR states voted, compared with 58.2% in non-EDR states.
° Four of the six states with EDR voted at higher rates than any other state. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and New Hampshire led the nation in voter participation.
° Battleground states with EDR had turnout 13% higher than non-EDR battleground states. Voter participation averaged 75.1% in EDR battleground states, compared with 61.9% in non-EDR battleground states - significantly higher than the 6.6% average difference between battleground and safe states.
° EDR may increase the effectiveness of the intense mobilization that occurs in battleground states. Among states without EDR, battleground states had turnout rates only 5.2% higher than safe states. Battleground EDR states, however, had turnout rates 8.4% higher than safe EDR states.
In addition, voters in EDR states did not confront the massive provisional ballot and voter registration problems faced by voters in other states. According to the non-partisan Election Protection Coalition, the most widely reported incidence of voter disenfranchisement occurred due to registration problems, including:
Improperly completed registration forms were a significant problem in the 2004 election cycle, exemplified by lawsuits filed in Florida and Iowa after forms went unprocessed because of failure to check each of multiple citizenship boxes.
Faulty work by registration groups was blamed for mass disenfranchisement on November 2, as improperly handled registration forms led to many voters being turned away. This was particularly problematic in "swing states", which drew unprecedented attention from registration groups.
Deceitful work by registration groups was widely reported during this election cycle, as employees of Voter Outreach of America (Sproul and Associates' voter registration wing) in Nevada, Oregon, West Virginia and elsewhere were instructed to destroy registration forms completed by Democrats.
Provisional Ballots also drew a great deal of attention during this election, because the Help America Vote Act of 2002 failed to create uniform standards for their administration, resulting in widespread confusion about the legitimacy of ballots cast in improper precincts and the deadlines for presenting appropriate identification after voting provisionally. Hundreds of thousands of votes went uncounted as a result.
Currently, major efforts to enact EDR are underway in legislatures in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and North Carolina. In addition, EDR legislation has been introduced in several states, including California, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee and Vermont.
"In Nevada, we have worked hard to put a system in place that is voter-friendly and assures our citizens that their votes are counted accurately," said Dean Heller, Secretary of the State of Nevada and EDR supporter. "But because of various circumstances, many felt they were left out of the process due to missed deadlines, loss of paperwork by public agencies, or even partisan groups allegedly tossing out registration forms."
"By allowing citizens to register on Election Day, many of the barriers to voting are removed, and the opportunity to vote is opened up to countless eligible voters who otherwise might not have participated. With all this in mind, I fully support Election Day Registration."