59 Elections: Voter Registration

Learning Objectives

  • Identify ways the U.S. government promotes voter rights and registration
  • Summarize similarities and differences in state voter registration methods
  • Analyze ways states increase voter registration and decrease fraud

Before most voters are allowed to cast a ballot, they must register to vote in their state. This process may be as simple as checking a box on a driver’s license application (Motor-Voter Act) or as difficult as filling out a long form with complicated questions.[1]

Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also known as the “NVRA” and the “Motor Voter Act”), to enhance voting opportunities for every American. The Act has made it easier for all Americans to register to vote and to maintain their registration. In addition to whatever other methods of voter registration which States offer, the Act requires states to provide the opportunity to apply to register to vote for federal elections by three means:Section 5 of the Act requires states to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license, and requires the State to forward the completed application to the appropriate state of local election official.[2]

Section 7 of the Act requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance and all offices that provide state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities. Each applicant for any of these services, renewal of services, or address changes must be provided with a voter registration form of a declination form as well as assistance in completing the form and forwarding the completed application to the appropriate state or local election official. Section 6 of the Act provides that citizens can register to vote by mail using mail-in-forms developed by each state and the Election Assistance Commission.[3]

Registration allows governments to determine which citizens are eligible to vote and, in some cases, from which list of candidates they may select a party nominee. Ironically, while government wants to increase voter turnout, the registration process may prevent various groups of citizens from participating in the electoral process.

Voter Registration Across the United States

Elections are state-by-state contests. General elections for president and statewide offices (e.g., governor and U.S. senator) are often organized and paid for by the states. Because political cultures vary from state to state, the process of voter registration varies.

The varied registration and voting laws across the United States cause controversy. In the aftermath of the Civil War, some states enacted literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other requirements intended to disenfranchise poor and black voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Literacy tests were long and detailed exams on local and national politics, history, and more. They were often administered arbitrarily with more blacks required to take them than whites.[4]

Poll taxes required voters to pay a fee to vote. Grandfather clauses exempted individuals from taking literacy tests or paying poll taxes if they or their fathers or grandfathers had been permitted to vote prior to a certain point in time. While the Supreme Court determined that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional in 1915, states continued to use poll taxes and literacy tests to deter potential voters from registering.[5]

Some states ignored instances of violence and intimidation against African Americans wanting to register or vote.[6]

Black and white people voting together, Warren K. Leffler, photographer, 6 November 1962, U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection, Library of Congress, no known restrictions on publication at https://www.loc.gov/item/2016646466/.
Black and white people voting together, Warren K. Leffler, photographer, 6 November 1962, U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection, Library of Congress, no known restrictions on publication at https://www.loc.gov/item/2016646466/.

The ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 ended poll taxes, but the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 had a more profound effect. The act protected minority voters by prohibiting state laws denying voting rights. The VRA gave the attorney general of the United States authority to order federal examiners to areas with a history of discrimination. These examiners had the power to oversee and monitor voter registration and elections. States violating or sometimes suspected of violating the VRA were required to get any changes in their election laws approved by the U.S. attorney general or by going through the court system. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, threw out the standards and process of the VRA.[7]

Image A is an official document. The text is unreadable. Image B is of a group of people, including Lyndon B. John, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.
The Voting Rights Act (a) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson (b/left) on August 6, 1965, in the presence of major figures of the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. (b/center).

The effects of the VRA were visible almost immediately. In Mississippi, only 6.7 percent of blacks were registered to vote in 1965; however, by the fall of 1967, nearly 60 percent were registered. Alabama experienced similar effects, with African American registration increasing from 19.3 percent to 51.6 percent. Voter turnout across these two states similarly increased. Mississippi went from 33.9 percent turnout to 53.2 percent, while Alabama increased from 35.9 percent to 52.7 percent between the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections.[8]

Many states have sought other methods of increasing voter registration. In 2002, Arizona was the first state to offer online voter registration, which allowed citizens with a driver’s license to register to vote without any paper application or signature. The system matches the information on the application to information stored at the Department of Motor Vehicles, to ensure each citizen is registering to vote in the right precinct. Citizens without a driver’s license still need to file a paper application. More than eighteen states have moved to online registration. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates, however, that adopting an online voter registration system can initially cost a state between $250,000 and $750,000.[9]

Other states have decided against online registration due to concerns about voter fraud and security. Legislators also argue that online registration makes it difficult to ensure that only citizens are registering and that they are registering in the correct precincts. A bill to move registration online in Florida stalled for over a year in the legislature, based on security concerns. In other states, such as Texas, both the government and citizens are concerned about identity fraud, so traditional paper registration is still preferred.

How Does Someone Register to Vote?

In all states except North Dakota, a citizen wishing to vote must complete an application. Whether the form is online or on paper, the prospective voter will list his/her name, residency address, and in many cases party identification (with Independent as an option) and affirm that he or she is competent to vote. States may also have a residency requirement, which establishes how long a citizen must live in a state before becoming eligible to register, often 30 days. Beyond these requirements, there may be an oath administered or more questions asked, such as felony convictions. If the application is completely online and the citizen has government documents (e.g., driver’s license or state identification card), the system will compare the application to other state records and accept an online signature or affidavit if everything matches. Citizens who do not have these state documents are often required to complete paper applications. States without online registration often allow a citizen to fill out an application on a website, but the citizen will receive a paper copy in the mail to sign and mail back to the state.

Another aspect of registering to vote is the timeline. States may require registration to take place as much as thirty days before voting, or they may allow same-day registration. Maine first implemented same-day registration in 1973. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now allow voters to register the day of the election if they have proof of residency, such as a driver’s license or utility bill. Many of the more populous states (e.g., Michigan and Texas), require registration forms to be mailed thirty days before an election. Moving means citizens must re-register or update addresses. College students, for example, may have to re-register or update addresses each year as they move. States that use same-day registration had a 4 percent higher voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election than states that did not.[10]

An image of a Notice of Change of Address
Moving requires a voter to re-register or update his or her address in the system. Depending on the state, this notification can sometimes be completed through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Some attempts have been made to streamline voter registration. As previously noted, Motor-Voter was enacted to expedite the registration process, allowing citizens to register to vote when they sign up for driver’s licenses and Social Security benefits. On each government form, the citizen need only mark an additional box to also register to vote. Unfortunately, while increasing registrations by 7 percent between 1992 and 2012, Motor-Voter did not dramatically increase voter turnout.[11] In fact, for two years following the passage of the act, voter turnout decreased slightly.[12]

It appears that the main users of the expedited system were those already intending to vote. One study, however, found that preregistration may have a different effect on youth than on the overall voter pool; in Florida, it increased turnout of young voters by 13 percent.[13]

In 2015, Oregon made news when it took the concept of Motor-Voter further. When citizens turn eighteen, the state now automatically registers most of them using driver’s license and state identification information. When a citizen moves, the voter rolls are updated when the license is updated. While this policy has been controversial, with some arguing that private information may become public or that Oregon is moving toward mandatory voting.[14]

Journalists discovered that many states, including Florida, had large numbers of phantom voters on their rolls, voters had moved or died but remained on the states’ voter registration rolls.[15]

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was passed in order to reform voting across the states and reduce these problems. As part of the Act, states were required to update voting equipment, make voting more accessible to those with assessability challenges, and maintain computerized voter rolls that could be updated regularly.[16]

Over a decade later, there has been some progress. In Louisiana, voters are placed on ineligible lists if a voting registrar is notified that they have moved or become ineligible to vote. If the voter remains on this list for two general elections, his or her registration is cancelled. In Oklahoma, the registrar receives a list of deceased residents from the Department of Health.[17]

Twenty-nine states now participate in the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which allows states to check for duplicate registrations.[18]

link to learningThe National Association of Secretaries of State maintains a website that directs users to their state’s information regarding voter registration, identification policies, and polling locations.


Who Is Allowed to Register?

In order to be eligible to vote in the United States, a person must be a citizen, resident, and eighteen years old. But states often place additional requirements on the right to vote. The most common requirement is that voters must be mentally competent and not currently serving time in jail. Some states enforce more stringent or unusual requirements on citizens who have committed crimes. Florida and Kentucky permanently bar felons and ex-felons from voting unless they obtain a pardon from the governor, while Mississippi and Nevada allow former felons to apply to have their voting rights restored.[19]

On the other end of the spectrum, Vermont does not limit voting based on incarceration unless the crime was election fraud.[20] Maine citizens serving in Maine prisons also may vote in elections.

Beyond those jailed, some citizens have additional expectations placed on them when they register to vote. Wisconsin requires that voters “not wager on an election,” and Vermont citizens must recite the “Voter’s Oath” before they register, swearing to cast votes with a conscience and “without fear or favor of any person.”[21]

Where to Register?

Across the United States, over twenty million college and university students begin classes each fall, many away from home. The simple act of moving away to college presents a voter registration problem. Elections are local. Each citizen lives in a district with state legislators, city council or other local elected representatives, a U.S. House of Representatives member, and more. State and national laws require voters to reside in their districts, but students are an unusual case. They often hold temporary residency while at school and return home for the summer. Therefore, they have to decide whether to register to vote near campus or vote back in their home district.

Maintaining voter registration back home is legal in most states, assuming a student holds only temporary residency at school. This may be the best plan, because students are likely more familiar with local politicians and issues. But it requires the student to either go home to vote or apply for an absentee ballot. With classes, clubs, work, and more, it may be difficult to remember this task. One study found that students living more than two hours from home were less likely to vote than students living within thirty minutes of campus, which is not surprising.[22]

Image A is of two people sitting behind a table. A cloth sign hanging in front of the table reads
On National Voter Registration Day in 2012, Roshaunda McLean (a, left), campus director of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, and David Vaughn (a, right), a Missouri Student Association senator, register voters on campus. Cassie Dorman (b, left) and Samantha Peterson (b, right), both eighteen years old, were just two of the University of Missouri students registering to vote for the first time. (credit a, b: modification of work by “KOMUnews”/Flickr)

Questions to Consider

  1. What effect did the National Voter Registration Act have on voter registration?
  2. What challenges do college students face with regard to voter registration?
  3. Have you registered to vote in your college area or back home?
  4. What factors influence your decision about where to vote?

Terms to Remember

24th Amendment–eliminated poll taxes

grandfather clause–exempted individuals from taking literacy tests or paying poll taxes if they or their fathers or grandfathers had been permitted to vote prior to a certain point in time

literacy test–long and detailed exams on local and national politics, history, and more

Motor-Voter Act–legislation making voter registration easier; registration at time of obtaining or updating driver’s license

poll tax–required voters to pay a fee to vote

residency requirement–the stipulation that citizen must live in a state for a determined period of time before a citizen can register to vote as a resident of that state

voter registration–paperwork required for voting; proof of residency and age; state requirements met in order to cast ballot

Voting Rights Act–protected minority voters by prohibiting state laws denying voting rights

  1. USA.gov at https://www.justice.gov/crt/about-national-voter-registration-act "About the National Voter Registration Act"
  2. USA.gov at https://www.justice.gov/crt/about-national-voter-registration-act "About the National Voter Registration Act"
  3. USA.gov at https://www.justice.gov/crt/about-national-voter-registration-act "About the National Voter Registration Act"
  4. Stephen Medvic. 2014. Campaigns and Elections: Players and Processes, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
  5. Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915).
  6. Medvic, Campaigns and Elections.
  7. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
  8. Bernard Grofman, Lisa Handley, and Richard G. Niemi. 1992. Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 25.
  9. "The Canvass," April 2014, Issue 48, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/states-and-election-reform-the-canvass-april-2014.aspx.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Royce Crocker, "The National Voter Registration Act of 1993: History, Implementation, and Effects," Congressional Research Service, CRS Report R40609, September 18, 2013, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40609.pdf.
  12. "National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789–Present," http://www.electproject.org/national-1789-present (November 4, 2015).
  13. John B. Holbein, D. Sunshine Hillygus. 2015. "Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout." American Journal of Political Science (March). doi:10.1111/ajps.12177.
  14. Russell Berman, "Should Voter Registration Be Automatic?" Atlantic, 20 March 2015; Maria L. La Ganga, "Under New Oregon Law, All Eligible Voters are Registered Unless They Opt Out," Los Angeles Times, 17 March 2015.
  15. "'Unusable' Voter Rolls," Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2000.
  16. "One Hundred Seventh Congress of the United States of America at the Second Session," 23 January 2002. http://www.eac.gov/assets/1/workflow_staging/Page/41.PDF.
  17. "Voter List Accuracy,"11 February 2014. http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-list-accuracy.aspx
  18. Brad Bryant and Kay Curtis, eds. December 2013. "Interstate Crosscheck Program Grows," http://www.kssos.org/forms/communication/canvassing_kansas/dec13.pdf.
  19. "Felon Voting Rights," 15 July 2014. http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx.
  20. Wilson Ring, "Vermont, Maine Only States to Let Inmates Vote," Associated Press, 22 October 2008.
  21. "Voter’s Qualifications and Oath," https://votesmart.org/elections/ballot-measure/1583/voters-qualifications-and-oath#.VjQOJH6rS00 (November 12, 2015).
  22. Richard Niemi and Michael Hanmer. 2010. "Voter Turnout Among College Students: New Data and a Rethinking of Traditional Theories," Social Science Quarterly 91, No. 2: 301–323.


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