Same-day registration: A simple solution to protect voter rights

Same-day registration: A simple solution to protect voter rights

New Census data suggests an estimated 3.6 million voters did not cast a ballot in the 2018 midterm election because of a problem with their voter registration. To have so many Americans unable to vote because of an inefficient and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy is shameful. 

The good news is this is a solvable problem, and many states are taking positive action.

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Same-day registration, a policy spreading in states across the nation, allows eligible voters to register or fix a problem with their registration when they go to the polls to vote. Last month, New Mexico became the 20th state to enact the policy, and more states are considering it, with legislation pending in Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Indiana.

The policy’s effectiveness at boosting turnout is clear. States with same-day registration have a well-documented turnout advantage over states without it — an advantage of 7 percentage points in the 2018 midterm, according to the “America Goes to the Polls” report from Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project. In fact, seven of the 10 highest turnout states in 2018 had same-day registration.

By comparison, eight of the 10 lowest-turnout states went to the other extreme by requiring voters to register four weeks in advance of the election, according to the report. It’s not hard to understand how advance registration deadlines depress turnout. With the busy lives we lead, people often don’t know they need to register until it’s too late. Whether a young voter new to the process, a recently naturalized citizen, or most common of all — a voter who simply moved to a new address — we all need to register, but the clock is working against us.

However, even when voters do everything right, they could still have registration problems due to no fault of their own. In these cases, same-day registration provides critical protections of our individual right to vote — a crucial backstop against bad actors, gross incompetence and simple clerical mistakes.

Let’s start with what critics decry as “voter purges,” which have gotten a lot of attention after election officials in several states zealously removed voters from the rolls by the tens of thousands, in many cases violating federal law in the process. To keep those lists clean, election officials — who have a responsibility to keep their voter rolls clean and free of people who have died, voters who have moved out of state or across town, or voters who are on the rolls twice due to a name change — sometimes identify voters who haven’t voted in a couple of elections, and then send a postcard to confirm they are still at that address. If they fail to reply to the postcard, which can easily be mistaken for junk mail, they may be removed from the rolls.

There has been much litigation on this issue, and accusations of partisan objectives, but the end result is the same: fully eligible voters end up being unknowingly removed from the rolls by the thousands. Then they arrive at the polls only to be told they are ineligible to vote.

And to put an even more nefarious lens on things, the same could happen if the Russians ever successfully hack into and modify voter rolls. Voters by the thousands could discover they are no longer registered.

Sometimes the blame falls on third-party groups doing voter registration drives. Tennessee recently enacted controversial legislation that levies $10,000 fines on voter registration groups that turn in too many incomplete forms, after one organization did exactly that. While many argue the legislation in Tennessee is an overreaction with a chilling effect on nonpartisan registration drives, the problem is real. Whether registration forms are incomplete, turned in late, or not turned in at all by the group that collected them, the impact is the same. A voter — who did everything right — shows up at the polls only to discover he or she is not registered, and cannot vote.

In all of these cases, same-day registration acts as a fail-safe — a way to ensure that those voters who were under the impression that they were registered can still vote. Sure, these voters will have to show some identification at the polling location, but they won’t lose their fundamental right to vote because of a mistake — or partisan shenanigans — made by someone else. 

Voting is a right well worth protecting, and same-day registration is one simple yet critical way to do it.

Brian Miller is the executive director of Nonprofit VOTE which helps nonprofits engage the communities they serve in voting and elections. Nonprofit VOTE authored the report referenced in this opinion piece. Find out more @NpVOTE

Miles Rapoport is the senior practice fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, and served as secretary of the State in Connecticut. Find out more @HarvardAsh