In the United States, voter registration is a near-universal feature of the democratic process. Before an eligible individual can vote in a federal, state, or local election, he or she must register with the relevant authorities, usually at the county or municipal level. Registration is used to compile lists of eligible voters and is a prerequisite to voting in forty-nine of the fifty states. North Dakota is the lone state that does not require it; instead, North Dakota permits residents to simply present valid identification at polling stations.
Voter registration is a contentious issue because it has historically been used to suppress rather than enable voters. Though registering voters is ostensibly done to prevent electoral fraud and protect the integrity of elections, it is considered by many to be a bureaucratic obstacle that makes it more difficult for some eligible voters to participate in elections. Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, which states that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” during the Jim Crow era (1877–1965), registration requirements were applied to prevent African Americans from exercising their voting rights. In the 1890s, for example, Mississippi began compelling voters to read and explain a passage from the state’s constitution to a county clerk as part of the registration process. Members of the state’s African American population had low literacy rates at the time, and they would often be asked to read highly technical or complex passages. Conversely, white voters would be given simple, straightforward sentences. The county clerk, who was always white, held the unilateral authority to decide whether or not a would-be voter passed this literacy test. Other tactics, such as grandfather clauses that allowed white voters to bypass literacy requirements while holding African American citizens to stringent standards, were also used to prevent black voters from registering. As a result of such policies, the percentage of voting-age African Americans registered to vote decreased dramatically throughout the South. In Mississippi, the percentage of registered African American men of voting age dropped from over 90 percent before the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to less than 6 percent in 1892.
While the US Constitution grants responsibility for the administrative aspects of the voting process to the states, which enabled states to pass discriminatory laws under Jim Crow, the Constitution also protects citizens’ voting rights through the Fifteenth, Nineteenth (in which women gained the right to vote), and Twenty-sixth (reducing the voting age to eighteen) Amendments. As such, federal laws have been passed to prevent states from applying policies that interfere with these rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was enacted to ensure compliance with the Fifteenth Amendment throughout the South, authorized federal oversight of elections in districts where voter registration among racial minorities was below 50 percent. Addressing some of the inequities created under Jim Crow, the law banned literacy tests first in the South and then throughout the country as part of a 1970 amendment. Federal efforts to eliminate barriers to voter registration were bolstered by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. The NVRA specifies requirements that states must adhere to in their registration processes for federal elections. Commonly referred to as the Motor Voter Act, one of the NVRA’s main provisions compels Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices throughout the country to provide voter registration services. It also introduced standardized voter registration forms, which can be processed by mail, that voters can use to enroll for federal elections.
Statutes of the States
While national-level statutes regulate some aspects of the voter registration process, states retain significant latitude in setting their own registration policies. In addition to allowing eligible residents to register at DMV offices, all states offer voters the opportunity to register through party-affiliated voter registration drives, local election offices, state agencies that offer public assistance services, and sanctioned third-party organizations such as the League of Women Voters. Some states also provide additional options, such as online registration, same-day registration, and preregistration. Deadlines also vary, with some states requiring voters to register at least thirty days before the election date and others allowing registrants to enroll as late as Election Day.
Some state-level registration policies are considered problematic, as they tend to impede some citizens from exercising their voting rights. For instance, most states with registration deadlines in advance of Election Day do very little to inform voters about these cutoff dates, and as a result, many otherwise eligible electors fail to register in time. States that allow online and same-day registration tend to have significantly higher voter participation rates, yet, as of 2018, twelve states had not adopted online registration policies, and only seventeen states and the District of Columbia allowed same-day registration. Thirteen states also had no advance voting options and instead offer voters only two options: to vote in person at a polling station on Election Day, or to vote via an absentee ballot.
The accuracy of state voter lists is an essential aspect of election integrity, but numerous factors can compromise it. Voters often move from one state to another without updating their voter registrations, and large numbers of inactive voters, including deceased individuals, remain on voting lists. A 2014 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) audit by the US Election Assistance Commission found there were twenty-three million inactive registrants on voter rolls across the country. Such inaccuracies encumber administrative efforts, leading to inefficiencies, oversights, and the potential for electoral fraud.
In 2016 a federal appeals court ruled that Ohio’s policy for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, which enabled the removal of over 100,000 names from the state’s voter registries between 2012 and the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election, violated the NVRA. Ohio’s policy mandated that county election departments request confirmation from voters who had not participated in an election for two years; voters who failed to confirm that they wished to remain registered and did not engage in election activity for an additional four years had their names stricken from the voter rolls. A 2016 analysis by Reuters determined that African American voters, voters in low-income communities, and voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods were most affected by the state’s policy. In some counties, voters fallings into these groups were found to have been purged at rates two to three times higher than more affluent or right-leaning voters. Despite the federal appeals court’s 2016 ruling, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Ohio’s appeal and subsequently reversed the lower court’s decision in June 2018.
Online, Automatic, Same-Day, and Preregistration
As of 2018, thirty-seven states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to register online through secure, government-affiliated websites. In jurisdictions where it is offered, the online registration process is available to anyone with a state-issued identification card (ID) or driver’s license. Supporters point to online registration’s convenience and cost-cutting efficiency as major benefits, but critics note that no online system is one hundred percent secure, and as such, it has also drawn scrutiny due to the inherent potential for security breaches. For example, reports indicate that Russian hackers penetrated voting rolls in thirty-nine states leading up to the 2016 US presidential election.
Automatic voter registration is authorized in twelve states and the District of Columbia as of 2018, and it has been hailed in some circles as an effective solution to the disenfranchisement problems associated with legacy registration systems. With automatic registration, eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote upon their first interaction with the state DMV, and previously registered voters are automatically re-added to voter rolls unless they specifically request to opt out. This theoretically improves voter turnout, and the Center for American Progress reported in 2017 that Oregon’s automatic registration system saw 272,000 voters added to the state’s rolls in the first year of the program, over 98,000 of whom voted in the 2016 election. While automatic registration also improves the accuracy of voter rolls, it does have its critics and opponents. Generally, those who object to automatic registration policies view them as infringing on individual liberties, as they put the registration decision in the hands of the government rather than the hands of the voter.
Same-day registration, also known as Election-Day registration, enables voters to complete their registrations on the spot at polling stations when they arrive to cast their ballots. Voters must simply present proof of residency, such as a paycheck or utility bill, and a valid piece of photo identification, such as a driver’s license, passport, or state-issued ID. In some jurisdictions, valid photo ID can also double as proof of the voter’s residency status. As of 2018, same-day registration is available in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) suggests that it improves voter turnout rates by an average of about 5 percent. However, its opponents contend that it is vulnerable to abuse and electoral fraud, as many states only verify the voter’s registration after Election Day, by which time the voter’s ballot has already been counted.
Preregistration options are available in the District of Columbia and all states except North Dakota. Under preregistration systems, young voters are eligible to register ahead of time, so that they will automatically be able to participate in elections when they reach voting age. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia open preregistration to sixteen-year-olds, while four states set seventeen as the cutoff age. Additionally, five states allow preregistration to individuals who are two to six months away from their eighteenth birthday. The most common system, which is in place in twenty-seven states, does not identify a specific cutoff age, but rather allows young people to preregister if they will be eighteen years old by the time of the next election. In most cases, the “next election” is specified as the next general federal election, though there are some exceptions. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, which analyzed data from the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey for 2000–2012, found that turnout for voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two was two to thirteen percent higher in states with preregistration laws than in states that did not offer preregistration. Experts believe that further studies of preregistration and its effectiveness may help develop future reforms that will increase turnout and engagement among other groups of voters.
Young Voters, Registration Drives, and the Rising American Electorate
In the aftermath of the February 2018 mass-shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, student activists began a strong drive to spread a message to young people: mobilize, exercise your democratic rights, and vote lawmakers who oppose gun control reform out of office. Crime statistics show that teens and young people are more likely to be killed by gun violence, but voter turnout rates in the eighteen to twenty-nine age bracket are consistently lower than they are in older age groups. For example, US Census Bureau statistics found that in 2016, citizens in this age bracket had a 46.1 percent turnout rate, compared to 58.7 percent of those ages thirty to forty-four, 66.6 percent of those ages forty-five to sixty-four, and 70.9 percent of those ages sixty-five and older.
The Parkland students’ activism is one of numerous examples of young voters leading registration drives. In the 1960s, the youth-led Freedom Summer movement convened in Mississippi to encourage African American voters to register in larger numbers and exercise their democratic rights as part of the decade’s broader civil rights movement. In 1990 music executive Jeff Ayeroff organized and launched Rock the Vote, which sought to empower young people and increase their participation in society and policymaking. The organization also educates young voters on their democratic rights, and it continues to serve as a major driver of youth voter registration today. Running on-the-ground voter registration drives since 2008, the Alliance for Youth Organizing launched National Voter Registration Day in 2012, which remains a high-profile youth-oriented civic engagement platform. According to the Alliance for Youth Organizing, the initiative’s on-the-ground voter registration drives have resulted in more than 386,000 youth voter registrations since its inception.
The Rising American Electorate (RAE) is another key demographic in the voter participation movement. Used primarily among Democratic political strategists, the term RAE was coined by the nonprofit organization Women’s Voice Women Votes, now known as the Voter Participation Center (VPC). According to the VPC, the RAE includes young voters as well as people of color and unmarried women, and it comprised approximately 133 million, or nearly 60 percent, of eligible voters as of the 2016 presidential election. However, one-third of voters in the RAE were unregistered in 2016, compared to only one-fifth of non-RAE eligible voters. This discrepancy has inspired the VPC and other grassroots groups to intensify their efforts to mobilize this impactful demographic to participate more fully in US democracy.