Voter Registration


The National Commission on Voting Rights completed a study in September 2015 that found state registration laws can either raise or reduce voter turnout rates, especially among citizens who are young or whose income falls below the poverty line. States with simple voter registration had more registered citizens.Tova Wang and Maria Peralta. 22 September 2015. “New Report Released by National Commission on Voting Rights: More Work Needed to Improve Registration and Voting in the U.S.”

In all states except North Dakota, a citizen wishing to vote must complete an application. Whether the form is online or on paper, the prospective voter will list his or her name, residency address, and in many cases party identification (with Independent as an option) and affirm that he or she is competent to vote. States may also have a residency requirement, which establishes how long a citizen must live in a state before becoming eligible to register: it is often thirty days. Beyond these requirements, there may be an oath administered or more questions asked, such as felony convictions. If the application is completely online and the citizen has government documents (e.g., driver’s license or state identification card), the system will compare the application to other state records and accept an online signature or affidavit if everything matches up correctly. Citizens who do not have these state documents are often required to complete paper applications. States without online registration often allow a citizen to fill out an application on a website, but the citizen will receive a paper copy in the mail to sign and mail back to the state.

Another aspect of registering to vote is the timeline. States may require registration to take place as much as thirty days before voting, or they may allow same-day registration. Maine first implemented same-day registration in 1973. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now allow voters to register the day of the election if they have proof of residency, such as a driver’s license or utility bill. Many of the more populous states (e.g., Michigan and Texas), require registration forms to be mailed thirty days before an election. Moving means citizens must re-register or update addresses (Figure). College students, for example, may have to re-register or update addresses each year as they move. States that use same-day registration had a 4 percent higher voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election than states that did not.Ibid. Yet another consideration is how far in advance of an election one must apply to change one’s political party affiliation. In states with closed primaries, it is important for voters to be allowed to register into whichever party they prefer. This issue came up during the 2016 presidential primaries in New York, where there is a lengthy timeline for changing your party affiliation.

An image of a form titled “Notice of Change of Address”. The form has four different sections, titled “Personal Information”, “Voter Change of Address”, “New or Correct Residence Address”, and “New or Correct Mailing Address”. The section titled “Voter Change of Address” is highlighted with a callout box.
Moving requires a voter to re-register or update his or her address in the system. Depending on the state, this notification can sometimes be completed through the Department of Motor Vehicles, as in California.

Some attempts have been made to streamline voter registration. The National Voter Registration Act (1993), often referred to as Motor Voter, was enacted to expedite the registration process and make it as simple as possible for voters. The act required states to allow citizens to register to vote when they sign up for driver’s licenses and Social Security benefits. On each government form, the citizen need only mark an additional box to also register to vote. Unfortunately, while increasing registrations by 7 percent between 1992 and 2012, Motor Voter did not dramatically increase voter turnout.Royce Crocker, “The National Voter Registration Act of 1993: History, Implementation, and Effects,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report R40609, September 18, 2013, In fact, for two years following the passage of the act, voter turnout decreased slightly.“National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789–Present,” (November 4, 2015). It appears that the main users of the expedited system were those already intending to vote. One study, however, found that preregistration may have a different effect on youth than on the overall voter pool; in Florida, it increased turnout of young voters by 13 percent.John B. Holbein, D. Sunshine Hillygus. 2015. “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science (March). doi:10.1111/ajps.12177.

In 2015, Oregon made news when it took the concept of Motor Voter further. When citizens turn eighteen, the state now automatically registers most of them using driver’s license and state identification information. When a citizen moves, the voter rolls are updated when the license is updated. While this policy has been controversial, with some arguing that private information may become public or that Oregon is moving toward mandatory voting, automatic registration is consistent with the state’s efforts to increase registration and turnout.Russell Berman, “Should Voter Registration Be Automatic?” Atlantic, 20 March 2015; Maria L. La Ganga, “Under New Oregon Law, All Eligible Voters are Registered Unless They Opt Out,” Los Angeles Times, 17 March 2015.

Oregon’s example offers a possible solution to a recurring problem for states—maintaining accurate voter registration rolls. During the 2000 election, in which George W. Bush won Florida’s electoral votes by a slim majority, attention turned to the state’s election procedures and voter registration rolls. Journalists found that many states, including Florida, had large numbers of phantom voters on their rolls, voters had moved or died but remained on the states’ voter registration rolls.“’Unusable’ Voter Rolls,” Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2000. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was passed in order to reform voting across the states and reduce these problems. As part of the Act, states were required to update voting equipment, make voting more accessible to the disabled, and maintain computerized voter rolls that could be updated regularly.“One Hundred Seventh Congress of the United States of America at the Second Session,” 23 January 2002.

Over a decade later, there has been some progress. In Louisiana, voters are placed on ineligible lists if a voting registrar is notified that they have moved or become ineligible to vote. If the voter remains on this list for two general elections, his or her registration is cancelled. In Oklahoma, the registrar receives a list of deceased residents from the Department of Health.“Voter List Accuracy,”11 February 2014. Twenty-nine states now participate in the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which allows states to check for duplicate registrations.Brad Bryant and Kay Curtis, eds. December 2013. “Interstate Crosscheck Program Grows,” At the same time, Florida’s use of the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database has proven to be controversial, because county elections supervisors are allowed to remove voters deemed ineligible to vote.Troy Kinsey, “Proposed Bills Put Greater Scrutiny on Florida’s Voter Purges,” Bay News, 9 November 2015.

Despite these efforts, a study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust found twenty-four million voter registrations nationwide were no longer valid.Pam Fessler, “Study: 1.8 Million Dead People Still Registered to Vote,” National Public Radio, 14 February 2013; “Report: Inaccurate, Costly, an Inefficient,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, February 14, 2012. Pew is now working with eight states to update their voter registration rolls and encouraging more states to share their rolls in an effort to find duplicates.Fessler, “Study: 1.8 Million Dead People Still Registered to Vote.”

Link to learning graphic

The National Association of Secretaries of State maintains a website that directs users to their state’s information regarding voter registration, identification policies, and polling locations.