Election Day Registration
by Mike Connery, Sat Jun 23, 2007 at 10:31:07 AM EDT
Conventional wisdom states that low turnout rates are evidence that young people are less engaged than older Americans in civic life. Yet with high rates of volunteerism and increasing engagement, this is clearly wrong. Something else is going on. As the Brennan Center, Demos, and even Rolling Stone have ably chronicled, young people - particularly students - face high barriers to entry for participating in the political process.
Since the 1970's and 80's, many university towns - particularly small towns in rural areas, where the students vastly outnumber local populations - have actively sought to disenfranchise students. This has taken a variety of forms including closing polling places on campuses, declaring dormitories to be ineligible as a "permanent places of residence," and regulations necessitating that a student's place of residence and drivers license address match - a near impossibility for students. Barriers like these are compounded by a problem that all young people typically face - we are a highly mobile bunch, switching residences, towns, even states from year to year as we jump jobs and apartments.
If we want young people participating in politics, we should work to ensure that the system actually encourages and facilitates that participation. One way to do that is Election Day Registration. To be sure, it won't solve all of the problems I mentioned that prevent young people from voting, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.
In 2006, seven states employed Election Day Registration - Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. According to Demos (pdf), those seven states consistently see some of the highest rates of turnout in the country (see graph below). In 2006, turnout in EDR states was 48.7% vs. an average of 38.2% in non EDR states.
Switching back to young voters, it is estimated that Election Day Registration could increase youth turnout by as much as 14%. To put that into perspective, the massive turnout increase among young voters that we saw in 2004 represented only an 11% overall increase. If we had EDR in all 50 states, and young voters continued to vote 2-1 in favor of Democrats, we'd likely see a Democratic landslide that would dwarf last year's blue wave.
More on the flip.
EDR also solves other structural problems with our system. In non-EDR states, voter registration frequently closes 25 days or more before the polls open. Yet one study found that 40% of all news stories about the midterm elections were aired/printed in the final week of the campaign. A 2000 poll found that while only 59% of people were paying close attention to the election in September, that number rose to 75% in the first week of November (both stats from Demos pdf, original links are dead). Just as reporting on the election, and consequently people's interest in politics, peaks, states without EDR are shutting off any ability of those newly engaged people to join the system. That makes no sense.
As progressives continue to take over state legislatures, we should make Election Day Registration one of our reform priorities.
According to Demos (pdf), as of May 2007, 21 states had an Election Day Registration bill wending through at least one of the state legislative bodies. (19 of those were pro EDR, 2 of those - in Montana and New Hampshire - sought to eliminate EDR.
North Carolina recently took a step in the right direction, passing a same-day registration bill that will allow residents to register to vote up to three days before an election (the previous deadline was 25 days), and cast an early ballot at the time of their registration. Project Vote has an excellent diary on this legislation, and some Republican shenanigans that tried to obstruct the bill's passage.
There are people on this site (I'm looking at you, Project Vote and Nathanhj) much smarter than me who have been working on this issue for years. I'd love to hear what they think about this issue and what we can all do to help push EDR in our home states.
I'm coming at this problem from the perspective of someone interested in enfranchising more young (and progressive) voters, but there are lots of reasons to do this. But aside from young voters, highly mobile, low-income voters and historically disenfranchised communities are also prime beneficiaries of EDR. All these constituencies are likely to favor Democratic candidates. Beyond the partisanship though, everyone deserves a voice in our democracy, and enabling people to use that voice is just the right thing to do. We should be the change we want to see. EDR will make us a more accountable, and more participatory, democracy. To me, that's a worthwhile goal in and of itself.