Voter registration in the United States

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A group of African-American children gather around a sign and booth to register voters. Early 1960s.

In the United States, citizens are not automatically eligible for voting, unless they registered at the county level. The only exception is North Dakota, although local jurisdictions in North Dakota may create such a requirement.[1] In most states, citizens registering to vote may declare an affiliation with a political party.[2] This declaration of affiliation does not make the citizen a dues-paying member of a party, and may be changed at any time. In many states, only voters affiliated with a party may vote in that party's primary elections, which are then called closed primaries.[3]

It has been proposed by some that registration requirements contribute to discouraging people from exercising their right to vote, thereby causing a lower voter turnout. According to a 2012 study, 24% of the voting-eligible population in the United States are not registered to vote, equaling some 51 million U.S. citizens. While voters traditionally had to register at government offices by a certain amount of time before the election, in the mid-1990s, the federal government made efforts to facilitate registering, in an attempt to increase turnout. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "Motor Voter" law) forced state governments to either provide uniform opt-in registration services through drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration, or to allow Election Day voter registration, where voters can register at polling places immediately prior to voting. In 2015, Oregon became the first state to make voter registration fully automatic (opt-out) when issuing driver licenses and ID cards. Political parties and other organizations sometimes hold voter registration drives, organized efforts to register groups of new voters.

Federal jurisdiction[edit]

While the federal government has jurisdiction over federal elections, most election laws are decided at the state level. The United States Constitution prohibits states from restricting voting rights in ways that infringe on a person's right to equal protection under the law (14th Amendment), on the basis of race (15th Amendment), on the basis of sex (19th Amendment), or on the basis of age for persons age 18 and older (26th Amendment). The administration of elections may however vary widely across jurisdictions.

Only US citizens have the right to vote in federal elections.[4] In a few cases, permanent residents ("green card" holders) have registered to vote and have cast ballots, generally without realizing that doing so was illegal. Non-citizens convicted in criminal court of having made a false claim of citizenship for the purpose of registering to vote in a federal election can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year. Deportation and removal proceedings have resulted from several such cases.[5] Some states prohibit convicted felons from voting, a practice known as felony disenfranchisement. Of these states, some prohibit voting only during parole or probation but allow voting after. A small number of states may require repeat offenders to have their voting rights restored through court action.[6]

Party affiliation[edit]

In many states, citizens registering to vote may declare an affiliation with a political party.[7] This declaration of affiliation does not cost money, and does not make the citizen a dues-paying member of a party. A party cannot prevent a voter from declaring his or her affiliation with them, but it can refuse requests for full membership. In some states, only voters affiliated with a party may vote in that party's primary elections. However, in the general election voters are free to vote for any candidate on the ballot, regardless of their declared affiliation. Declaring a party affiliation is never required. Some states, including Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, practice non-partisan registration.[8]

Effect on participation[edit]

A 2012 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that 24% of the voting-eligible population in the United States are not registered to vote, a percentage that represents "at least 51 million eligible U.S. citizens."[9][10] the study suggests that registration requirements contribute to discouraging people from exercising their right to vote, thereby causing a lower voter turnout. The extent of discouragement and its effect on increasing the socioeconomic bias of the electorate however remain contested.

In a 1980 landmark study, Raymond E. Wolfinger and Steven J. Rosenstone came to the conclusion that less restrictive registration requirements would substantially increase the electoral turnout. According to their probit analysis, if all states adopted the procedures of the most permissive state regulations, which would mean:

  1. eliminating the closing date
  2. opening registration offices during the forty-hour work week
  3. opening registration offices in the evening and/or on Saturday
  4. permitting absentee registration for the sick, disabled and absent

(p 73) turnout in the 1972 presidential election would have been 9.1% higher, with 12.2 million additional people having voted.[11] In a seminal 1988 book, sociologists Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven argued that lowering registration requirements would improve socioeconomic equality in the composition of the electorate.[12]

Findings such as this have inspired lawmakers to facilitate the registration process, eventually leading to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (or "Motor Voter" act) that required states to allow voter registration at various public offices, including drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, as well as mail-in registration, unless a state adopts Election Day voter registration. The way towards passing this piece of federal legislation was however lengthy and rocky, as these reforms were highly contested. In an expanded 1990 edition of their 1988 book, titled "Why Americans still don't vote: and why politicians want it that way," Cloward and Piven argued that the reforms were expected to encourage less-privileged groups which happen to lean towards the Democratic Party.[13]

While the turnout at federal elections did substantially increase following the electoral reforms, the effect fell short of Wolfinger and Rosenstone's expectations while Cloward's and Piven's hope of improving the demographic representativeness of the electorate wasn't fulfilled at all. Political scientist Adam Berinsky concluded in a 2005 article that the reforms designed to make voting "easier" in their entirety had an opposite effect, actually increasing the preexisting socioeconomic biases by ensuring "that those citizens who are most engaged with the political world – those with politically relevant resources – continue to participate, whereas those individuals without such resources fall by the wayside."[14] As Berinsky reaffirms in a 2016 piece, the only way to increase turnout while improving representativeness, is making more people become interested in politics.[15]

Forms of facilitation[edit]

Registration centers[edit]

Traditionally, voters have had to register at government offices to vote, but in the mid-1990s the federal government made registering easier, in an attempt to increase turnout. The most prominent example was the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the "Motor Voter" law, which forced state governments to provide uniform opt-in registration services through drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration. While the States with same-day registration on Election Day were exempt from these requirements.

Online registration[edit]

An increasing number of states have begun to allow voter registration to take place entirely online. As of May 9, 2016 the states that have approved online registration are:[16]

State Year Enacted Bill Number Year Implemented Website
Alabama n/a No legislation required 2016 Alabama Votes
Alaska n/a No legislation required 2015 Alaska Online Voter Registration
Arizona n/a No legislation required 2002 EZ Voter Registration
California 2011 SB 397 2012 California Online Voter Registration
Colorado 2009 HB 1160 2010 Go Vote Colorado
Connecticut 2012 HB 5024 2014 Connecticut Online Voter Registration
Delaware n/a No legislation required 2014 I Vote Delaware
District of Columbia 2014 B20-0264 2015 District of Columbia Online Voter Registration
Florida 2015 SB 228 n/a Not implemented yet
Georgia 2012 SB 92 2014 Georgia Online Voter Registration
Hawaii 2012 HB 1755 2015 Hawaii Online Voter Registration
Idaho 2016 SB 1297 n/a Not implemented yet
Illinois 2013 HB 2418 2014 Illinois Online Voter Registration
Indiana 2009 HB 1346 2010 Indiana Online Voter Registration
Iowa n/a No legislation required 2016 Iowa Online Voter Registration
Kansas n/a No legislation required 2009 Kansas Online Voter Registration
Kentucky n/a No legislation required 2016 Kentucky Online Voter Registration
Louisiana 2009 HB 520 2010 Geaux Vote
Maryland 2011 HB 740 2012 Maryland Online Voter Registration
Massachusetts 2014 HB 3788 2015 Massachusetts Online Voter Registration
Minnesota [a] 2014 HF 2096 2013 MN Votes
Missouri [b] n/a No legislation required 2014 Vote Missouri
Nebraska 2014 LB 661 2015 Nebraska Online Voter Registration
Nevada 2011 AB 82 2012 Nevada Online Voter Registration
New Mexico 2015 SB 643 2016 New Mexico Online Voter Registration
New York [c] n/a No legislation required 2011 New York Electronic Voter Registration 
Oklahoma 2015 SB 313 n/a Not implemented yet
Oregon 2009 HB 2386 2010 OreStar
Pennsylvania n/a No legislation required 2015 PA Online Voter Registration
Rhode Island 2016 SB 2513 n/a Not implemented yet
South Carolina 2012 HB 4945 2012 S.C. Online Voter Registration
Tennessee 2016 SB1626/HB1472 n/a Not implemented yet
Utah 2009 SB 25 2010 Utah Online Voter Registration
Vermont n/a No legislation required 2015 Vermont Online Voter Registration
Virginia 2013 HB 2341 2013 Virginia Voter Registration
Washington 2007 HB 1528 2008 MyVote
West Virginia 2013 SB 477 2015 West Virginia Online Voter Registration
Wisconsin 2016 SB 295 n/a Not implemented yet
  1. ^ Minnesota in 2013 made online voter registration available without enabling legislation but the legislature in 2014 authorized the state's system.
  2. ^ In Missouri, a person can register to vote online and electronically provide a signature using a mobile device, tablet computer or touchscreen computer, but not a standard desktop computer. The state reviews the information and prints out the registration form, which it sends to the person's local elections office for verification.
  3. ^ In New York, the registration system is not fully paperless. Voters can submit a voter registration application online, through a system run by the Department of Motor Vehicles, but paper is exchanged between the motor vehicle system and the statewide database. This creates a paperless experience from the voter's perspective, but administrative processes are still paper-based.

Automatic registration[edit]

In 2015, Oregon made voter registration fully automatic (opt out) when issuing driver licenses and ID cards.[17] By April 2016 three more states - California, West Virginia, and Vermont - followed suit, bringing the number of states with automatic voter registration to 4.[18][19] Several more states have since created legislation proposing automatic registration as well[20]

Election Day voter registration[edit]

The majority of states still require voters to register 2–4 weeks before an election, with various deadlines (such as 30 days or 15 days).

Some states allow Election Day voter registration (also known as EDR) which enables eligible citizens to register to vote or update their registration when they arrive to vote. It may also be called same-day registration (SDR) in states that allow voters to register and vote during the early voting period before Election Day.

EDR allows eligible citizens to register or update their registration at the polls or their local election office by showing valid identification to a poll worker or election official, who checks the identification, consults the registration list and, if they are not registered or the registration is out of date, registers them on the spot.

Eleven states currently have some form of EDR: Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Washington DC. Montana introduced EDR in 2006, and Iowa in 2008. In 2012, Connecticut and California both implemented EDR and Connecticut started EDR with its municipal elections in 2013. Colorado followed enacting EDR for the 2014 election. Illinois implemented a pilot in 2014 and made EDR permanent starting in 2015. Rhode Island has EDR for presidential elections. California will start in 2015 or once it has implemented its statewide voter registration database. (North Dakota, unique among the states, has no voter registration requirement at all.) In 2015, Vermont will implement EDR in 2017, and Hawaii will do so in 2018. In June 2011, the Maine legislature passed a law ending EDR, which had been in place since 1973, and abolishing absentee voting during the two business days before an election.[21] However, the stipulation banning EDR was overturned in a November 2011 citizen referendum ("people's veto") titled Question 1,[22] when Maine voters reinstated EDR with 59% in favor.[23]

Voter turnout is much higher in states using EDR than in states that do not. A 2013 report analyzing turnout in the 2012 United States Presidential election, had SDR states averaging at a turnout of 71%, well above the average voter turn-out rate of 59% for non-SDR states.[24] According to official turnout data report in the 2014 edition of America Goes to the Polls, voter turnout in EDR states has averaged 10–14 percent higher than states that don't have that option.[25] Research suggests that EDR increases turnout between three and fourteen percentage points.[26][27][28][29][30] A 2004 study summarizes the impact of EDR on voter turnout as “about five percentage points”.[31]

Voter registration drives[edit]

Political parties and other organizations sometimes hold voter registration drives, organized efforts to register groups of new voters.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Secretary of State North Dakota. "Voter Registration in North Dakota". Retrieved 4 August 2010. 
  2. ^ Navigating Election Day: What Every Voter Needs To Know, Before You Vote
  3. ^ "Voter Registration Resources". Project Vote Smart. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  4. ^ "The Right to Vote". United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  5. ^ Kirk Semple, ""Immigrants Find Voting Can Come At a Cost". New York Times, 15 October 2010.
  6. ^ http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx
  7. ^ Navigating Election Day: What Every Voter Needs To Know, Before You Vote
  8. ^ "Voter Registration Resources". Project Vote Smart. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  9. ^ "Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade" (PDF). The Pew Charitable Trusts. February 2012. Retrieved February 16, 2015. 
  10. ^ "Make It Easy: The Case for Automatic Registration". Democracy (journal). 2013. Retrieved February 16, 2015. 
  11. ^ Raymond E. Wolfinger and; Steven J. Rosenstone (1980). Who Votes?. Yale University Press. pp. 73; 78. ISBN 0-300-02552-1. 
  12. ^ Frances Fox Piven; Richard A. Cloward (1988). Why Americans don't vote. Random House. ISBN 0394553969. 
  13. ^ Toby S. James (2012). Elite Statecraft and Election Administration: Bending the Rules of the Game?. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-30842-8. 
  14. ^ Adam Berinsky (July 2015). "The perverse consequences of electoral reform in the United States" (PDF). American Politics Research 33 (4): 471–491. doi:10.1177/1532673X04269419. 
  15. ^ Adam Berinsky (February 8, 2016). "Making Voting Easier Doesn’t Increase Turnout". Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved April 7, 2016. 
  16. ^ The National Conference of State Legislatures
  17. ^ http://sos.oregon.gov/voting/Pages/motor-voter-faq.aspx
  18. ^ "Automatic Voter Registration". Brennan Center for Justice. 2016-04-01. Retrieved 2016-04-12. 
  19. ^ "Shumlin signs into law automatic voter registration". Vermont Business Magazine. 2016-04-28. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  20. ^ "Automatic Voter Registration". Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved 12 May 2016. 
  21. ^ June 11, 2011,Bill to end same-day registration approved Portland Press Herald
  22. ^ August 14, 2011, Citizens rise up in Maine Boston Globe
  23. ^ November 8,2011, Huff Post Politics, Maine Election Day Registration Restored By Voters
  24. ^ Timpe, Brenden (2013-03-14). "New Report: Higher Voter Turnout Linked to SDR". Demos (U.S. think tank). Retrieved 2013-05-29. 
  25. ^ Pillsbury, George; Johannesen, Julian (March 2015). "America Goes to the Polls 2014" (PDF). http://www.nonprofitvote.org/. Nonprofit VOTE.  External link in |website= (help)
  26. ^ Brians, Craig Leonard; Grofman, Bernard (2001-03-01). "Election Day Registration's Effect on U.S. Voter Turnout". Social Science Quarterly 82 (1): 170–183. doi:10.1111/0038-4941.00015. ISSN 1540-6237. 
  27. ^ Rhine, Staci L. (1996-01-01). "An Analysis of the Impact of Registration Factors on Turnout in 1992". Political Behavior 18 (2): 171–185. 
  28. ^ Ansolabehere, Stephen; Konisky, David M. (2006-12-21). "The Introduction of Voter Registration and Its Effect on Turnout". Political Analysis 14 (1): 83–100. doi:10.1093/pan/mpi034. ISSN 1047-1987. 
  29. ^ Burden, Barry C.; Canon, David T.; Mayer, Kenneth R.; Moynihan, Donald P. (2014-01-01). "Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform". American Journal of Political Science 58 (1): 95–109. doi:10.1111/ajps.12063. ISSN 1540-5907. 
  30. ^ Neiheisel, Jacob R.; Burden, Barry C. (2012-07-01). "The Impact of Election Day Registration on Voter Turnout and Election Outcomes". American Politics Research 40 (4): 636–664. doi:10.1177/1532673X11432470. ISSN 1532-673X. 
  31. ^ Highton, Benjamin (2004-09-01). "Voter Registration and Turnout in the United States". Perspectives on Politics 2 (03): 507–515. doi:10.1017/S1537592704040307. ISSN 1541-0986.