Modernizing Voter Registration

A computer screen displays a website where one can register to vote

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! 

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.


Online voter registration allows individuals to register to vote using the internet, making the process more accessible for many. Online voter registration can allow anyone with access to a mobile device or a computer to register, eliminating some barriers that often prevent the most vulnerable communities from registering to vote.

Online voter registration also allows state and local governments to cut down on costs by processing voter registration applications digitally, rather than using paper documents. According to the Pew Center on the States, after Arizona implemented online voter registration, its per-registration costs dropped from 83 cents per registration to 3 cents per registration.

As of April 2020, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer online registration. Oklahoma, which is not included in that count, currently allows previously registered voters to update their residential address, mailing address, or party affiliation online if it is in the same county as their previous address.

Online Voter Registration also presents an opportunity for state and local governments to provide language assistance to non-English speaking voters through online translation, which may not be available through traditional mail-in or in-person voter registration processes.

Best Models for Online Voter Registration

  • Vermont, Minnesota, California and Delaware are the best models for online voter registration because they all allow voters to register for the first time without a driver’s license or state-issued photo ID. In Vermont, a current utility bill, bank statement, or other government document containing a person’s address are all considered acceptable forms of ID to register online. In Minnesota, citizens who do not have a state-issued photo ID can use their Social Security number to register online. These forms of identification allow states to verify citizen’s voter registration without requiring them to take a trip to their local DMV to obtain identification.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a common-sense initiative that ensures all citizens can get registered automatically when they interact with government services. AVR should also be portable, meaning that your voter registration information follows you and is automatically updated when you move. According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study for the 2008 Election, one in four voters interviewed mistakenly assumed that election officials or the U.S. Postal Service update registrations automatically every time they move.

AVR creates a seamless voter registration process for citizens interacting with a range of government agencies, although the most common form is through a state’s DMV. As of April 2020, 18 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration. In Washington, D.C. voter turnout was higher among those who were automatically registered than overall voter turnout. Automatic voter registration, similar to online voter registration, also eliminates the possibility of election officials misreading handwritten information. Elimination of misinterpretation reduces unnecessary delays or errors in the voter registration process.

Models for AVR

Best practices for AVR include two elements: a “back-end” registration model and inclusion of numerous source agencies rather than only the DMV. Colorado’s current AVR system—as enacted in 2019—is an excellent model of these best practices.

There are two primary forms of automatic voter registration: 1) opt-in or front-end registration and 2) opt-out or back-end registration. The “back-end” approach automatically begins the voter registration process for all eligible individuals interacting with the agency and gives voters the opportunity to opt-out via mailer. The “opt-in” or “front-end” approach requires the voter to “opt-in” to registration at the target agency.

While both systems are preferable to no AVR, evidence shows that back-end AVR systems register a much higher percentage of eligible voters than front-end AVR systems. Oregon, which implemented back-end automatic voter registration in 2015, has seen its electorate increase in size and become more diverse. Since implementing the system, Oregon moved from 31st in state rankings for its percentage of people of color registered to vote to the second highest rate in the country. Moreover, back-end systems can be designed to rely on agency records to determine eligibility and reduce user error.

It matters not only how AVR is implemented but where AVR is implemented. Many states only use AVR for their DMVs. However, best practice is to expand the agencies where voters can benefit from automatic voter registration. Limiting AVR to the DMV necessarily limits the categories of voters that will benefit. Last year, Colorado extended AVR to its Medicaid offices.

Same Day Registration allows eligible voters in a state to register to vote the same day that they cast their ballot.  Same day registration increases voter turnout. This method has been shown to increase voter turnout by 3 to 7 percent, with an average of a 5 percent increase. Notably, same day registration has not been shown to shape partisan outcomes or benefit certain populations more than others. Seven of the top 10 states with the highest voter turnout in 2018 allowed same day registration.

Between 2018 and 2019, over 11.4 million Americans moved to a different county and over 4.7 million moved to a completely different state.

Same day registration can be especially helpful for voters who have recently moved and have not yet re-registered to vote. When Americans move, they do not always obtain a new driver’s license or state-issued photo ID, especially if they move within a state. Therefore, same day registration can fill a void that automatic voter registration currently does not in the majority of states. For voters who do not have access to public transportation or other ways to get to election offices, same day registration also limits the amount of trips they have to take in order to be able to vote.


If you have questions about this policy proposal, we'd love to hear from you! Just e-mail us. 

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