The Impact of State Laws on Voter Registration and Turnout
The MIT Election Data and Science Lab helps highlight new research and interesting ideas in election science, and is a proud co-sponsor of the Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference (ESRA).
Holly Ann Garnett and Peter Miller recently presented a paper at the 2018 ESRA conference entitled, “Registration Innovation: The Impact of American Registration Regimes, 1996–2016.” Here, they summarize their analysis from that paper.
The first step toward voting in most states is getting registered, but this can be a difficult and time-consuming task. There is paperwork to fill out, identification to provide, deadlines to meet, and forms to mail. In the face of these challenges, we pose an important question:
How can state election administrators make registration easier?
There are a few answers that come immediately to mind. For example, they can:
- Increase the time-frame during which voters can register
- Provide more convenient options for registration
- Improve list management and data-sharing among government bodies
In our paper, we consider four registration innovations:
- Election day registration
- Online registration
- Pre-registration of youth (registering them before they reach voting age)
- Automatic voter registration
We can see that overall, each of these innovations is increasing in use — you can see this clearly when they are mapped over time:
Beyond simply becoming more common, though, are these innovations effective at increasing voter registration and turnout?
In examining this question, our article:
- Updates analysis from 1996 (the first election following the National Voter Registration Act) to the most recent election (2016);
- Studies regimes (that is, combinations of the four registration innovations), not just individual innovations; and,
- Considers the impact on both registration and turnout.
We use data from several sources, including:
- Individual-level Voting and Registration Rates: Current Population Survey, 1996–2016
- State-level Registration Innovations in Place: National Council of State Legislatures
Our modeling strategy was logistic regression, with state and year fixed effects.
- Registration innovations can increase registration and turnout rates
- Election day registration may decrease registration rates, but can nonetheless increase turnout
- The combination of online registration and pre-registration of youth can have sizable impacts on youth registration and turnout
- Administrators and scholars must be careful in evaluating the impact testing one innovation alone, or one election year