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Why Aren’t Voters Registering?

Data obtained by the Brennan Center indicates that voter registration in 2010 is down considerably from registration prior to the 2006 midterm election.

  • Maria da Silva
October 26, 2010

The 2010 midterm election is one week away.  Amidst media coverage of Tea Party mobilization, unprecedented independent campaign spending, and political mudslinging, an important trend has received relatively little attention: declining voter registration rates.

It is not surprising that voter registration would be down from 2008— presidential elections typically generate higher levels of interest than midterm elections.  According to data obtained by the Brennan Center, however, voter registration across the nation in 2010 is down considerably from registration prior to the 2006 and 2002 midterm elections.  In Ohio, a perennial swing state, 671,642 individuals registered to vote between 2009 and 2010, compared to 896,053 in the two years preceding the 2006 midterm election— a 25% decrease.  Similarly, the Florida Division of Elections reports only 267,933 new registrations in 2010 compared to 370,190 in 2006— a 27% decrease.  New voter registrations in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin in 2010 are also down compared to the same time period in 2006: 35% in Indiana; 21% in Maryland; 28% in North Carolina; 17% in Tennessee; and 43% in Wisconsin.

In 2010, as in the last few elections, voter registration is the number one barrier to voting.  As a prerequisite to voting, registration is a crucial step in the democratic process.  Unfortunately, burdensome registration deadlines, confusing residency requirements and improper voting list purges, among other problems, impede the process.

In 2008, around 3 million people tried but were unable to vote because of voter registration issues.  This election cycle the registration problem is even more pronounced— there are far fewer efforts to register voters than there have been in recent election years as a result of new and onerous state laws, decreased funding, and public attacks against registration groups.  Brennan Center research also suggests that a significant number of states do not fully comply with federal voter registration laws— in particular, the address change requirements of National Voter Registration Act (‘NVRA’).  In addition to violating the component of the NVRA mandating registration at DMV offices, many states also fail to register voters at public assistance agencies.  As a result of this noncompliance, voter registration applications from public assistance agencies fell 62 percent from the initial implementation in 1995–1996 to the latest reporting period, 2007–2008.

What does this mean for the 2010 election?  As data collected by the Brennan Center indicates, the difference in voter registration in 2006 and 2010 is staggering.  These differences not only have huge implications for election-day outcomes— numerous races in the past decade have been decided by a handful of votes and in several 2010 races the margin between candidates is less than 1%— but also speak more generally to our need to modernize voter registration and energize voters.  Voting is both a right and a responsibility, but there is no reason to complicate the process unnecessarily, especially since the tools for implementing a modern voter registration system are readily available.

For more information about modernizing voter registration, please visit these resources:
Voter Registration Modernization Homepage
Voter Registration Modernization: Collected Reports and Papers
Various publications on Voter Registration Modernization

For more information about possible voting barriers in the 2010 election, please see:
Brennan Center’s National Press Club presentation on Threats to the Vote in 2010.