In every state except North Dakota, voters must register to vote in order to cast a ballot. However, problems with voter registration often prevent people from voting, particularly younger and new voters or people who have recently moved. Among those who did not vote in the 2008 presidential election, one in five reported that they had either missed the registration deadline—which can be up to 30 days before the election—or simply didn’t know where and how to register. In the same election, one million people went to the polls but couldn’t vote due to a registration problem. (US Census Bureau)
However, new systems and strategies that streamline the registration process and utilize new technology have helped states improve registration and have made it easier for first time registrants as well as voters who want to update their information.
The popularity of the internet, better statewide databases, and increased inter-department information sharing have given rise to online voter registration. Online registration allows voters to register for the first time or update their information without having to print or mail any paperwork. However, in order to register online, a voter’s signature must usually already be on file with the state. Twenty states currently allow online registration or have passed legislation to create an online system. An additional six states offer limited online registration.
See a current list of states that offer online registration and visit your state elections website for information on registering to vote.
Election Day Registration (EDR)—also known as same-day registration—allows a voter to register to vote or update their registration and then cast a ballot. It has been around for more than 40 years, but has gained traction within the last decade.
Many voters go to the polls on Election Day expecting to cast their ballot, only to discover that their registration is no longer valid because they’ve recently moved or changed their name. This is a particular challenge for younger and lower-income voters who move much more frequently than other groups. By allowing voters to register and vote at the same time on Election Day, EDR ensures that every eligible voter who wants to participate can. It has proven to be effective: Turnout in states with EDR is 10-12 points higher than in states without it.
In a step toward automating voter registration, 17 states allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, and then automatically add them to the voting rolls when they turn 18. This strategy not only consolidates activities, but can also increase registration rates by channeling the enthusiasm of first-time trips to the DMV into a civic outlet.
Young people are registered to vote at much lower rates than the general population: just 59% of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds are registered to vote, compared to 71% of all eligible voters. Advance-registration reaches young voters early on, building enthusiasm for voting and increasing the likelihood that they will become habitual voters.