Election Day Registration Could Cut Through Many of the Arguments in the Voting Wars

It’s a key tool for making voting easier

October 16, 2018

It is now too late to register to vote in a majority of states, including Texas, Florida, and New York. That means if you’re suddenly roused by Beto O’Rourke’s Senate candidacy in Texas, the ripsnorting Florida gubernatorial race, or the five Republican-held House seats in play in New York, congratulations — you’ve already been disenfranchised. 

Reasonable registration deadlines can help election officials maintain accurate rolls. But they also have the effect of cutting off would-be voters who tune in too late or who move close to an election. 

There’s an easy solution. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia currently allow Election Day voter registration with proper identification. (Maryland would become the 17th if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November). It is a growing, yet under-hyped, voting-rights movement that began in the 1970s with three reform-minded states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine. 

At the core of today’s voting wars over ID requirements, early balloting, the rights of former felons, and related matters is a cynical calculation by the Republicans that they derive a political advantage from artificially restricting the franchise. Anyone who doubts this truism should take a few minutes to study the sorry history of Donald Trump's short-lived commission on voter fraud and its combative GOP vice chairman, Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas.

What is needed at this troubled juncture is some way for both sides to reaffirm the traditional bipartisan consensus that, in a democracy, voting is a good thing. One way is backing automatic voter registration, which puts citizens on the rolls when they visit the department of motor vehicles or other state agencies. The other is stressing Election Day registration as both a practical and symbolic step toward boosting voter turnout.

In 2016, according to a study by the good-government group Nonprofit VOTE, turnout was 7 percent higher in the 14 states that had same-day registration than in the 36 states that did not permit it. Part of this difference may be due to tradition and demographics since New England and the Upper Midwest are much more likely to allow Election Day registration. An additional factor may be that six of these same-day states were also hotly contested battlegrounds in the 2016 presidential race with would-be voters exposed to an avalanche of TV ads and candidate visits. 

It’s important to note that same-day registration does not confer an advantage for either party. In 2016, Trump carried as many states with Election Day registration (seven — stretching from North Carolina to Idaho) as Hillary Clinton. (The electoral vote breakdown was Clinton 54, Trump 45. But remove the Democratic stronghold of Illinois, and the count becomes Clinton 34, Trump, 45.) 

This lack of obvious partisan advantage is understandable. The candidates who benefit from nonvoters deciding to register and vote at the last minute are those who arouse a passionate response. And, given the ebb and flow of politics, these may have been Barack Obama dreamers in 2008 and conservative Tea Party militants in 2010. The point is that there is no predictable political direction to enthusiasm.

Same-day registration also cuts through many of the arguments that conservatives have brandished throughout the voting wars. Reasonable voter ID would be required since election officials don’t have enough time to verify eligibility. In similar fashion, anyone wrongly purged from the voting rolls can reregister on Election Day like a new voter. 

Of course, same-day registration is not a panacea for America’s low turnout rate, especially in midterm elections. But enacting it across the nation would be a welcome symbol that Democrats and Republicans can come together to make voting easier and more appealing. 

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Mark Freso/Getty)