Election Day Registration

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.  

EDR Turnout

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.

EDR States

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.

Tags: EDR, election day registration, Same Day Registration, turnout, Voting Rights, youth vote (all tags)

Comments

16 Comments

Re: Election Day Registration

In 2004 and in 2006 I was organizing at my college in Minnesota and the benefits of EDR were clear.  The problem is that even in states like Minnesota with the highest turnout in the country and EDR, so many people, especially college students, have no idea they can even vote in the precinct they live at while at school or that they can register on the same day.  There have been massive attempts to disenfranchise college-aged voters in my area.  Years ago they closed the on-campus polls.  Also, even if you live on campus for two consecutive elections you have to re-register just if you switched rooms or dorms even though you have the same address.  I was giving people rides to the polls all day in vans and some election judges wouldn't let people I brought vote, so I had to go in and cite election laws to them as well as threaten to call a lawyer specializing in election law whom I know before they would let these people vote.

The worst case I heard of was two separate precincts with polling places in the same building.  A girl went into the wrong one and they told her she wasn't on the list even though she had pre-registered and had her card.  Even though it was clear she was from the college and this precinct didn't cover the college, they didn't tell her to go to the other precinct, not 100 feet away.

Much more needs to be done to prevent the disenfranchisement of students, but EDR is a good start.

by Archer Dem 2007-06-23 10:50AM | 0 recs
Drag and Drop

Archer Dem,

Didn't Minnesota MYDFL, CDA and YDA work together on a campaign to literally "drag" people out of their dorm rooms/campus and "drop" them off at their polling places to vote on election day?  

I can't remember where, but I seem to remember reading something about that being an effective tactic pioneered in EDR states  during the 2006 cycle.  Maybe in YVS's recent report on case studies from 2006.

Were you part of this?  Could you tell us about it?

by Mike Connery 2007-06-24 07:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Drag and Drop

In Minnesota we had the Youth Coordinated Campaign which sought to put organizers on each campus that provided a link between the main state organization and campus chapters.  I myself wasn't one of these interns, but as president of my college dems chapter I worked closely with ours.  The amount of resources and help we received by working the YCC was amazing financially, people-power wise, and for supplies.

Even before this program my school worked hard to literally drag people to the polls.  We've sponsored free rides to the polls as far back as anyone I've talked to remembers.  We blanketed the campus this year about half a dozen times before election day and again another 3 or 4 times on election day as well as having enough people to door knock the local precincts in town.

I strongly urge all states to look at promoting a program such as the Youth Coordinated Campaign in your state.  Also, it is vitally important to have the campaigns themselves involved in the organization and giving help.  I believe the Amy Klobuchar campaign gave $10k to the YCC, which went a long way in making it the success that it was.

by Archer Dem 2007-06-24 08:25PM | 0 recs
Vitally important

Election day registration is vitally important for robust turnout. We have it in Wisconsin and it was something to see in action in 2004. My union sent me to a student precinct as a vote protector and told me not to break a sweat getting there too early, students are late risers, you know. Hah! When I sauntered in half an hour after polls opened, there was a line 200 yards long, several hundred people. And by God, they were a disciplined lot and they were going to vote. It put a lump in my throat. That line itself became a problem, as we worked with well-intentioned officials to speed it up, asked them to break the master voter list into two to break the bottleneck (A - M and N - Z). No problem! Line cleared up in a couple hours.

One of my jobs was to oversee the new registration table, where maybe 15% of the voters came. They needed a picture ID linking the person to the face and a piece of incoming mail linking the name to the address, which had to be in the precinct. Then they signed an affidavit. That precinct went 80% for Kerry and it was a massive turnout, the old-timers said they'd never seen anything like it. Kerry took the state by 11,000 votes. There is no question whatever that he would have lost this state by tens of thousands of votes, maybe 100,000, without same day registration.

by MikeB 2007-06-23 11:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

The two states with by far the highest turnouts in 2004 were Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The lowest turnout state, Arizona, has WAY bmore cumbersome rules for voter registration.  But it does have vote-by-mail which is a good thing.

by jgarcia 2007-06-23 01:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

is the vote by mail to accomadate the elderly in arizona/;just curious

by jjgtrs 2007-06-23 05:58PM | 0 recs
In Georgia

State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan sponsored a same-day registration bill, HB 205.

Didn't go far, of course, in a Republican legislature that would rather disenfranchise voters with red tape like Voter ID, but it's a start.

by Drew 2007-06-23 01:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

Up front, I'm an old guy. I'm also a professor at a liberal arts college (resident undergraduate enrollment probably @2500) in a city whose current population is about 25,000. Since the 25,000 includes children as well as adults, that means as many as 15% of our potential voters have no permanent stake in our community. In a situation like ours one really must balance two perspectives.

On the one hand, should persons who are essentially transient be voting on issues (say allowing Wal-Mart to build a "superstore") that will seriously affect the lives of permanent residents for the foreseeable future? On the other hand, should persons living temporarily a long way from home be effectively disenfranchised?

I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I guess I'm inclined right now to prefer what might seem a compromise. I want people to vote on local candidates and issues in the community they honestly consider their (reasonably) permanent home, whether that's the one they grew up in or the one they're living in while in college. I want those whose permanent home lies elsewhere to have easy access to absentee ballots.

by Scarabus 2007-06-23 01:57PM | 0 recs
Case for maximum enfranchisement

Ok, I'm a 59 year old teacher at a vocational college in a larger town than yours, some 250,000 citizens. I argue that maximum enfranchisement is an unalloyed good. Democracy simply means the right to organize and make your case to decision makers. Sure, all these fresh and transient voters have the potential to screw up the school bonds and WalMart votes. Unorganized, they will probably break approximately like their parents, ideologically speaking.

The great thing about college, though, is that it is a time of personal ferment, growth, and change. With even modest prodding, any progressive cause will get its share of advocates and voters.

Case in point. In 2006, the wingers put a gay marriage and civil union ban on the Wisconsin ballot state-wide. The carried it too, 60%-40%. But young people throughout the state rallied behind FAIR Wisconsin to oppose it and carried the day in every college town in the state, including small ones like Platteville (population 10,000). Four Senate seats flipped Dem, enough to change the majority, and good gains in the Assembly.

by MikeB 2007-06-23 06:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

As a person who just graduated from college 4 weeks ago, let me give you my perspective on this debate.

1) My college was my home far more than where ever it was I lived that summer, be it at home with my parents or in some city for a summer job.  I spend 3/4 of the year at my school, and no where that I live during the summer is likely to be my home after school, as I'll either be moving to where I can get a job or continue my education in grad school.  Therefore, at school is my most permanent residence.

2) While students tend to only be around for 4 years you need to look at it as more than individual students and instead as a student body.  In general, the political affiliation of students at a school will not fluctuate that much from class to class.  That means that who students in 2002 voted for is probably pretty close to what students in 2006 would have voted for.  This means that the votes of college students are important because they will always make up a portion of the people affected even if they weren't the ones to cast the specific vote.

I feel it is necessary for students to have the ability to vote where they go to school and to have it be no greater hassle than other "permanent " residents (who might move at any time, anyway).

by Archer Dem 2007-06-24 08:33PM | 0 recs
Mobility Is A Real Problem EDR Helps Solve

There are real problems with mobility, as changing addresses tends to be a hazard for registration.

For example, the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition report "Analyses Of Voter Disqualification, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, November 2004" stated:

We estimate that simply changing residence exposes voters to a 6% chance of being disenfranchised. Youth, the poor, and minorities are disproportionately affected. In fact, with respect to just provisional ballots, we found a two-fold increase in rejection rate in predominantly African-American compared to predominantly Caucasian precincts. As noted in national studies, those Americans who move more frequently are more likely to be subject to registration errors (and also provisional ballot rejection). These include youth, those who rent rather than own homes, African Americans and Hispanics, and the poor. In Cuyahoga County, we estimate that each move brings about a 6% chance of disenfranchisement through registration error. The national data on groups that move more frequently is consistent with our findings of a nearly twofold rate of provisional ballot rejection in precincts with over 90% black populations compared to those that are 10% black or less. There is also a clear pattern of higher provisional ballot rejection rate in predominantly African American wards of the city of Cleveland.
Of course it matters how EDR is implemented how effectively this will be dealt with.  Whatever else is done, this needs to be seriously addressed.

There is nothing new about this.  The same sorts of obstacles were raised over 100 years ago, during a period in which restricting the franchise became sort of a crusade.  In-precinct residency requirements had a strong class bias to them, since workers following shifts in job availability were particularly hard hit. Not a lot of 30-40 mile commuting in those days.

In fact, if you read Alexander Keyssar's The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, you'll find a lot of similarities between the GOP's mindset today and the franchise-restricting ideology and practices he identifies with the 2nd of 4 distinct historical periods--the only one in which there was a concerted effort to shrink the electorate.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-06-23 03:26PM | 0 recs
CDA and YDA Project

I don't know why it didn't occur to me as I was writing this, but Election Day Registration is really an issue that College and Young Dems should take up in conjunction with the local parties - particularly in the off years.

Ideally, any support that CDA and YDA gives to local candidates should be contingent on their support of Election Day Registration as it's such a key issue for their constituents.

by Mike Connery 2007-06-24 07:14AM | 0 recs
Secretary of State Project

It would also be nice to see CDA and YDA team up with the Secretary of State Project to work on affirming the rights of students to vote in the communities in which they attend school.

by Mike Connery 2007-06-24 07:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

Great post and comments folks. Yes, we definitely need election day registration and it would be great if young Democrats would take the lead on this.

Also, as I have been advocating, the government needs to provide unbiased information about who/what is on the ballot so voters have some idea of what they are voting on. California provides an extensive sample ballot and separate initiative booklet that gives people a good sense of what is there so they are better prepared when they go into the ballot booth. In Ohio, where I now live, voters have to figure it all out on their own.

by RandomNonviolence 2007-06-24 08:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

I like the tactics of pushing EDR for low-income and progressive millennial voters, but I like even more that, uhhh, in a "democracy" every "citizen" should be allowed to "vote" without having to jump through a bunch of BS red tape.

Many bureaucratic issues which confound and muck-up our political systems are problems of information that would pose no challenge to any qualified group of professionals, let alone a "best and brightest" type of program.

Bringing governance (which means first and foremost the mechanics of voting) into the information age feels like a required first-step for most bigger-picture goals and policies. It's an important part of reviving the notion that, hey, Public Services can solve Public problems.

by Josh Koenig 2007-06-24 11:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Election Day Registration

There was recently a hearing about this in Massachusetts. I reported on pretty much the whole thing over at Blue Mass Group. You can find the post here.

by afertig 2007-06-24 09:08PM | 0 recs

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