Modernizing Voter Registration
Voter registration is the number one barrier to voting in the United States.
Voter registration should be easy, accessible and secure so that every citizen can exercise their fundamental right to vote. Our voter registration laws need a twenty-first century upgrade and many states are leading the charge. But too often, states are moving backwards; making voter registration more difficult and less equitable.
Barriers to Voter Registration
Voter registration is the number one obstacle to voting in the United States. Voter turnout among registered voters is quite high. If we can increase the number of registered voters, our civic participation will also grow. But the same barriers that often prevent historically disenfranchised communities from getting to the polls also pose barriers to voter registration.
It is well recognized that the voter registration process is the primary obstacle to voting. Indeed, the National Voter Registration Act was motivated by the well-founded belief that increasing access to registration would increase overall participation. Congress wrote: “[F]ailure to become registered is the primary reason given by eligible citizens for not voting. It is generally accepted that over 80 percent of those citizens who are registered vote in Presidential elections. . . . Expanding the rolls of the eligible citizens who are registered is no guarantee that the total number of voters will increase, but it is one positive action Congress can take to give the greatest number or people an opportunity to participate.”
For those voters without easy access to technology (of which there are many), voter registration may require a separate trip to an agency like the DMV that can assist with registration. For low-income voters who do not own a car and do not have access to public transportation, these trips can be difficult and burdensome. Registration poses a particular challenge for voters with low-literacy skills and homeless voters who have to navigate a maze of laws regarding what address they can use to register. Finally, voter registration is particularly hard for voters with disabilities because of the inaccessibility of many states’ voter registration sites. An ACLU study found that only one state website had an accessible online voter registration form for people who use screen readers (technology that translates text to speech).
Even for those who navigate the current registration bureaucracy, voter registration errors that disenfranchise Americans on Election Day are all too common. Year after year, difficulty with registration is one of the most common problems reported by voters calling Election Protection. Further, states sometimes fail to process voters’ registration information, leading to problems for tens of thousands of voters. Other states fail to provide poll workers with supplemental poll lists to ensure voters whose registration information is missing or incorrect due to administrative failures can still vote.
Attacks on Voter Registration
In recent years, we have seen several attacks on voter registration – jeopardizing the right to vote for millions of Americans, particularly those from historically disenfranchised communities.
States like Ohio purge voters who have not voted in recent elections if they do not respond to a single notice in the mail requiring them to take affirmative steps to remain registered to vote. If this notice is not returned and the individual does not vote in the next two elections, the voter is purged and will not be able to vote unless they re-register.
States like Georgia and Texas have attempted to force naturalized voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship, suggesting that they had illegally registered to vote. Texas’s unlawful program was quickly halted by a federal court. Georgia also attempted to suspend voters’ registration for technical mismatches between voter data and other agency, like data from the DMV. This is despite the fact that it is commonplace for registration information to have typographical errors and that ethnic names often do not conform to the naming format of a given or first name followed by a surname.
States like Tennessee, Texas, and Florida have passed laws to restrict civic organizations that help people register to vote by imposing fines and draconian criminal penalties if they do not follow strict, burdensome, and unnecessary regulations on voter registration.
Bringing Voter Registration Into the 21st Century
We can and must make voter registration easier, more accurate, and more reliable. Many states are leading the way in adopting common sense modern solutions to voter registration. In particular, three reforms—particularly when combined—can make voter registration accessible and equitable: online voter registration, automatic voter registration, and same day registration. While these tools do not eliminate all barriers to voter registration, they reduce them across the board. They can also decrease financial costs for state and local governments by reducing reliance on mail-in paper-based registration.
Voter registration reforms can be implemented by a number of actors, including:
- Secretaries of State or the head of a State Election Department, Division, Board, Bureau, or Commission
These officials are specifically tasked with promulgating rules and procedures for voter registration statewide. They have the power to ease the voter registration process for all eligible voters. California’s Secretary of State provides information on automatic voter registration, same day voter registration, and absentee voting on their website. While some policies require legislative change, others do not. For example, the Ohio Secretary of State could immediately halt their use-it-or-lose-it voter purge program.
- State Legislatures
State legislatures can pass bills allowing citizens to register to vote online, on election day, and automatically when they receive their state-issued ID or other state-managed services. All three voter registration methods are nonpartisan and serve to increase the number of registered voters for both parties. In 2019, the Colorado state legislature passed a bill to implement automatic voter registration.
- Local Election Officials
Local election officials often have substantial authority over election administration. They can ensure that poll workers are trained on supplemental voter lists to ensure all eligible voters are able to cast their ballots on election day.
You can engage in state or local advocacy to push any of the officials above to take action to make voter registration accessible for all eligible voters. You can also work with or create programs that help register voters in your neighborhood.