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Research Report

State Restrictions on Voter Registration Drives

  • Diana Kasdan
Published: November 30, 2012

At a time when political operatives are trying to make it harder for some Americans to participate in the democratic process, community voter registration drives continue to increase the numbers of eligible Americans registered to vote. But, in recent years, state legislatures have attempted to make it harder for voter registration drives to operate. More than half of the states have some laws governing community-based voter registration drives. State Restrictions on Voter Registration Drives is the first comprehensive review of those laws. Designed with advocates, policymakers, and community groups in mind, this report analyzes the most onerous aspects of state restrictions on voter registration drives and provides a state-by-state snapshot of the laws in each of the 50 states.

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At least 51 million — roughly 25 percent — of voting-age Americans are not registered and cannot vote.That is equivalent to losing the entire eligible voting population of California, New York, and Texas combined.Among the millions missing from our voter rolls, a disproportionate share are persons of color. As of 2010, Census data shows that 37 percent of eligible blacks and 48 percent of eligible Hispanics are not registered to vote.This underrepresentation of millions of eligible voters is, in part, the result of a voter registration system that is “among the world’s most demanding,”according to a 2001 commission co-chaired by Presidents Ford and Carter. Unlike most democracies, the United States places the onus of voter registration on individual citizens. The process is often cumbersome and inefficient, and ultimately depends on the correct reading and filing of millions of pieces of paper. It is a system ill-suited for the 21st century.

Given the deficiencies of the current system, community-based voter registration drives are vital. Drives help citizens navigate the process and once registered, they become engaged in democracy. For decades voter registration drives have added millions of voters to the rolls.This has been particularly important among minority communities: Black and Hispanic voters are much more likely than white voters to register through private voter registration drives Civic groups are essential for assisting voters who might not register successfully on their own, or who are more likely to do so only after personal encouragement from a community member. This approach not only leads to greater registration, it leads to greater participation. Studies show that voters are more likely to cast a ballot if they have registered through community-based efforts.

This report is the first comprehensive review of state laws regulating community-based voter registration. The first two sections provide an overview of laws governing voter registration drives and explain which rules impose unreasonable and onerous restrictions on these efforts. Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas stand out as states with the most restrictive laws.

The third part of this report provides a 50-state guide to each state’s laws regulating voter registration drives. The state-by-state survey is intended as a general reference for advocates, policymakers, community groups, or anyone else interested in the laws of a particular state or those seeking to understand the varied national landscape.

The ability of community groups to help potential voters can vary greatly. Many states regulate those who assist in registering eligible citizens. While many of these laws are reasonable (or at least not too prohibitive to comply with), others create unnecessary and burdensome obstacles that effectively block or substantially impede voter registration drives. Such rules may violate federal law and suppress political association and expression that is at democracy’s core. For example, in 2011, Florida enacted harsh restrictions that forced the League of Women Voters of Florida and Rock the Vote to abandon voter registration programs and severely curtailed voter registration efforts by other groups.These onerous measures crippled many registration efforts, especially those targeting minorities. The Florida NAACP, for example, reported a dramatic decrease in the number of local NAACP branches, individual members, and churches volunteering to join its voter registration efforts.Precisely because of these effects, a federal court in Florida recently agreed with the Brennan Center’s arguments that the law’s “harsh,” “impractical,” and “burdensome” requirements on voter registration drives served “little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional,” and in violation of the federal Motor Voter law.

The patchwork of confusing state laws demonstrates the need for a better system of enlisting voters. The variable regulation of voter registration drives, combined with antiquated, error-prone,paper-based registration systems, choke access to the voter rolls that citizens should have as a right. It defies common sense that voter registration, the prerequisite for the central act of democracy — voting — should be in such disarray. Technology is the first step out of this morass. The Brennan Center has detailed the advantages of voter registration modernization.By deploying existing technologies and databases, states can not only accurately and automatically register eligible citizens, they can do so at a lower cost. Of course no system is perfect. But with modernized voter registration, states can accurately enroll the vast majority of their eligible citizens. Meanwhile, community-based groups can concentrate on registering and engaging potential voters who are hardest to reach: those not captured in existing databases.