Due to the unique evolution of democracy in the United States, elections are still largely administered by the states. While the rules vary, most states require you to register to vote prior to casting a ballot on Election Day, in some cases as much as 30 days in advance.

So when do you need to register or update your voter registration?

  • When you’ll turn 18 by Election Day – or prior to that if your state allows 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register.
  • When you’re a newly naturalized citizen.
  • When you move, even if just across town.
  • When you change your name.
  • When you haven’t voted in a while, in which case your registration may have been removed due to inactivity even though you’re still at the same address

All of these are cases where you need to update your voter registration.

This is no small group of people. According to Census data, there are 23 million people who move across state lines every four years. During those same four years, 19 million people will turn 18 according to the Census, and another 3 million will become new naturalized US Citizens according to DHS. That means at least 45 million people must update their registration every four years. In actual number would be significantly higher if cross-town and intra-state movers were included.

But here’s the rub: Many Americans are confused about the voter registration process. At a recent meeting of the National Association of State Election Directors, the Democracy Fund presented data from CCES about voter confusion vis-à-vis voter registration. 41% of people answered incorrectly when asked if they had to update their registration when they move across town. 20% still answered incorrectly when asked about the need to update their registration when they move to a new state. And that’s only the movers. People who were removed from the rolls due to inactivity may be unaware they were removed, while newly naturalized citizens are just learning the state-by-state rules of American elections.

To their credit, a number of states have taken action to simplify the process, cut red tape, and pro-actively help residents register. 15 states now have Same Day Registration that allows voters to update their registration at the same time that they vote, during early voting or on Election Day. In another 10 states, legislation has been passed to have voter rolls automatically updated as people update their driver’s license, or interact with other government agencies.

Despite these reforms, most states still require voters to update their own voter registration record well in advance of Election Day. To make this process a little easier and save the state money, 38 states have now enacted online voter registration, but even this still requires the voter to do it themselves. Additionally, voters are generally unaware that they have an online registration option. A quarter of voters who had online voter registration available to them said they didn’t according to the same Democracy Fund presentation. Half didn’t know. Less than a quarter of voters who have online voter registration available to them knew and answered correctly.

The sheer numbers of people who have to update their registration every four years, coupled with the confusion about the registration process, means that millions of eligible voters are unable to vote each year due to a problem with their registration. That is unacceptable. As a nation, we need to do everything possible to ensure eligible voters are not denied the vote because of problems with their voter registration.

That’s where nonprofits and other community partners across the country can play a key role. We as nonprofits are rooted in the communities we serve, communities that are often left out of the democratic process. We have the trust and cultural competency to work with our communities. Yes, nonprofits can be at the forefront of this effort, registering and engaging the communities we serve in the democratic process.

One great opportunity to do so is National Voter Registration Day, set for September 26, 2017. As a single, coordinated day of action across the nation, National Voter Registration Day is designed to raise awareness of the need to update one’s voter registration in order to vote, cut through some of the confusion, and ensure eligible voters are not denied the vote due to registration problems.

This year, National Voter Registration Day will take place with a focus on getting voters ready for the state and local elections that will be taking place across the country in November. To become a partner and learn more about National Voter Registration Day, click here.