The first step in voting is registration.
To be eligible to register to vote, the individual must meet three basic requirements: (1) be at least 18 years of age at the time of the next election, (2) being a U.S. citizen and (3) be a resident of the jurisdiction where the individual is registering. Under federal law, every state must allow residents to register to vote at least 30 days before Election Day, though many states extend the deadline to register. Additionally, in some states individuals who have been convicted of a felony or have been found by a court to be incompetent may be ineligible to vote. For more information on voter registration eligibility in your state, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
There are many ways to register to vote. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“the Motor Voter Act”) offers individuals the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license, and requires states to offer voter registration at all offices that provide public assistance and state-funded programs to persons with disabilities.
A voter may use the federal mail-in form, which every state must accept and use and includes instructions for where to send it in each state.
A person who registered to vote by mail and who is voting for the first time in a federal election must provide a form of voter identification, either a photo copy when they registered by mail or provide the identification in person when they go to go. Acceptable forms of identification may include a current and valid photo ID or paycheck, bank statement, utility bill, or government document with the voter’s full name and voting address. In some states, identification required for first time voters may be stricter.
Barriers and Issues Surrounding Voter Registration
Some states have begun making it harder for people to register to vote, often in the name of preventing voter fraud. Even though such voter impersonation fraud is practically nonexistent, voter registration systems kept more than two million people from voting in 2008.
States have begun to create new restrictions on voter registration drives, leading some community based organization to stop voter registration drives altogether. These laws can lead to a big drop in the number of new registered voters especially for minority voters.
In addition to new restrictions on the ability to register, some states have also begun aggressive “purge” campaigns which occur when states remove voters from the voter rolls. Though purging voter rolls can be a legitimate state election activity to maintain current and accurate voter rolls, when the process is not done properly eligible, registered voters can end up being purged. Voters check their voter registration status to make sure that they have not been inadvertently removed from the voter rolls.
Many issues impact voter registration like inadequate resources, clerical errors and failures to timely notify registrants of problems with their registration forms. In recent elections, jurisdictions have not scheduled sufficient staff to work on the days prior to registration deadline when demand for services is heightened. Additionally, elections office employees often make errors while inputting registration data into the jurisdiction’s database. These errors create problems for voters on Election Day, especially with respect to voter identification. Furthermore, elections employees frequently fail to timely notify registrants of errors or omissions in their applications. This means the individual does not have an opportunity to correct his/her registration and is subsequently ineligible to vote.
Election Protection and its allies are actively fighting these barriers to voter registration. Some states have adopted laws making voter registration more accessible for their citizens, such as enacting Election Day or Same Day registration (Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Washington, DC for all elections, and Connecticut and Rhode Island for Presidential elections) and online registration (Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington). Recently Connecticut passed both Election Day and online registration for all elections which will go into effect for elections in 2014. Legislators in California recently passed Election Day registration and Hawaii legislators passed online voter registration—both bill await signatures from their state governors.
In order to tackle the issues that continue to burden our voter registration process, many states are also passing other versions of Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), which will simplify voter registration for both voters and election officials. VRM will automatically register every eligible American to vote when they turn 18 or become citizens. Additionally, when voters move their registration will move with them.