Registering to vote appears to be quite simple. The official website of the united states government states:
You can vote in U.S. elections if you:
– Are a U.S. citizen
– Meet your state’s residency requirements
– Are 18 years old on or before Election Day
– Register to vote by your state’s voter registration deadline
This all sounds very straightforward, however voting rules in the U.S. are different in every state. And in 2012, nearly 35% of U.S. citizens eligible to vote in 2012 weren’t registered – up from 29% 4 years earlier.
Is voting a right or a privilege?
There are two opposing perspectives on the topic of voter registration and participation. Some believe that voting is a privilege, and that asking citizens to jump a few hurdles to be allowed to vote is normal. Another perspective is that voter participation is the foundation of democracy, and should be encouraged as much as possible.
Our two major political parties approach this from these opposing perspectives.
For instance, on one side, California automatically register eligible citizens when they renew or obtain a driver’s license.
On the other side, Alabama’s chief elections official John Merrill made the news for delivering a screed against nonvoters that many people interpreted as an attack on African Americans in the state, who have long faced barriers to voting. “If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege.”
The Republican then added “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter.”
Voter registration rules can be partisan
These opposing perspectives are directly driven by partisan logic. Rich people, who trend Republican, are typically already registered (and vote) in large numbers. Poor people, who trend Democrat, typically vote far less. This is clearly illustrated in the research from Demos:
Assuming that poorer people trend Democrat, increasing registration will result in a higher proportion of voters who lean Democrat.
The intensely fought battle for the 6th district in Georgia in 2017 highlights the opposing approaches. Georgia aimed to apply a state level voter registration law which cut off voter registration 90 days before the election. Multiple civil rights organizations sued, and won in court. This allowed Georgians to register up to 30 days before voting for the runoff.
Highest levels of interest in a vote – and registration – are in the last weeks before the vote
Almost all democratic countries, such Germany, Sweden or France, automatically register their citizens to vote. The american approach to optional registration is an outlier. The fact that it is decided politically, and locally, is also an outlier.
As stated in this article from US news, in many states, the time of maximum interest in an election – the weeks before Election Day – remains the only time you cannot register to vote. The entire registration system is archaic, designed for an age when registrars needed weeks to receive registration changes in the mail to produce hard copy voter rolls for elections.
Overall, there is a lot of disparity across states:
– Only 12 states allow registration on the day of the vote (plus one, ND, which doesn’t require voter registration)
– 3 states allow in the last week.
– 30 states close registration more than 2 weeks before the vote – ranging from MA to TX
Other voter registration games: battleground New Hampshire
In a recent development, the Republican legislature in New Hampshire has decided to push forward a drastic tightening of residency requirements to allow for registration. The new requirement demands that citizens obtain the status of “resident” in NH. The current law requires citizens to have a “domicile” in the state to be able to register and vote. This change in terminology means that people who live in NH would need to obtain a NH drivers license and register their car in the state. This requires time and money, and would mainly impact college students. Is it a coincidence that this group tends to vote liberal?
Although this attempt will most probably be found unconstitutional, it is another illustration of how politicians try to game voter registration rules in their favor.
Who takes care of voter registration?
There are several organizations which focus on voter registration. They are often geared towards minorities, or poor communities. These communities are precisely the ones with the most limited registration. Citizens in these communities will sometimes be held back by concerns which would could appear minor. For instance, lack of transportation, or inability to afford the cost of obtaining documentation create minor but real obstacles.
VoteRiders is a non-partisan, non-profit organization, whose mission is to ensure that all citizens are able to exercise their right to vote. They inform and help citizens to secure their voter ID, which allows them to register and then vote.
Since 2003, the Voter Participation Center has helped register more than 3.5 million American voters through their mail and online voter registration programs. They are focused on unmarried women, people of color, and millennials – who are now the majority of eligible voters.
Vote.org is another useful organization. Their goal is to simplify political engagement, increase voter turnout, and strengthen American democracy. Vote.org make it easy to check if you are registered to vote, and also find out your polling place and get reminders.
As always, if you know of any organizations which should be added to the list, please comment below!