- Midterm elections have much lower voter turnout than on-year elections
- State voting laws and options can vary in complicated ways
- Some state voting laws can create barriers to voting that negatively impact turnout
- Voting restrictions can decrease turnout disproportionally within certain demographic groups
- Effective advocacy could hinge on whether you empower your supporters to vote
Voter Turnout Trends in the U.S.
It’s no secret that the U.S. has one of the lowest voter participation rates in developed democracies today. In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, 59% of the eligible population voted—and this was one of the higher turnout rates of the last 30 years.
Midterm elections, or “off-year” elections that don’t include a Presidential election, have even lower turnout. In the 2014 midterms, just 36% of eligible Americans voted.
While many factors may contribute to low voter turnout, voter registration processes in the U.S. stand out as a major factor. It’s significantly easier to register to vote in most other developed nations, where national governments often register voters automatically or make a major push to get everyone registered. On the other hand, in the U.S., “registration is mainly an individual responsibility,” but state-level legislation sets the rules for registration, which gives us 51 different voting registration processes (including Washington, D.C.).
If you are getting out the vote this November, it’s crucial you understand the nuances of voter registration so your supporters don’t end up getting denied at the polls. Here, we break down these nuances nationwide, identifying any advance deadlines for voter registration, early voting or absentee voting options, and any election-day I.D. requirements.
Please note: the data and charts in this article include Washington, D.C. along with the 50 states, so there are 51 different voter registration processes compared in total.
Deadline for Voter Registration
Multiple studies have indicated that states that allow registration up to the day of the election have higher voter turnout. And yet, as of 2018, 38 states require voters to register between 20 and 31 days in advance of election day. We as Americans lead busy lives, and even if we’re inclined to participate in the election, three to four weeks can be long time in advance to think about registering to vote.
The deadlines are strictly enforced, making the experience particularly frustrating for would-be voters who think to vote after the deadline has passed. As you are crafting your GOTV strategy, keep these deadlines in mind so you can get your advocates registered to vote before it’s too late.
Thankfully, seven states (including D.C.) allow for registration up to election day. Voters in North Dakota actually don’t have to register at all.
Availability of Early Voting and Absentee Voting
Early and absentee voting can be key components to the success of your GOTV program. Many Americans, for a variety of reasons, have challenges voting in-person on election day. Luckily, early and absentee voting can provide greater accessibility and increase your turnout rate in November.
States run the gamut in voter accessibility options. More than half of the states offer both early voting and absentee voting without restrictions, but almost one-fifth of the states don’t have either. The rest of them offer one or the other to some extent, but sometimes with certain restrictions.
For example, Virginia voters can only vote absentee if they qualify based on a list of specific reasons—it’s not automatically an option. Americans with less flexible, less secure jobs can have difficulty finding enough time away from work when their opportunity to vote is constrained to a single weekday. Both early voting and absentee voting can address this issue. As of today, only 31% of states offer unrestricted early voting, while 55% offer unrestricted absentee voting.
In 2016, the Supreme Court blocked an effort in North Carolina to restore old voting restrictions. Restoring the old restrictions would have resulted in seven fewer days for early voting. An appeals court had found that removing those seven days would decrease the number of people who would end up voting, particularly the number of African American voters, who “disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting.” In this example, the courts recognized that voter accessibility limitations can affect voter turnout for some demographic groups more than it does others.
ID Requirements for Election Day
As with voter registration, states have a wide range of ID requirements for election day. These requirements can present barriers even for eligible voters. One-third of U.S. states require voters to present a photo ID on election day, and yet one study estimated that 7% of Americans don’t have a government-issued photo ID. Many of the people in this group are older voters, lower-income voters, and people of color. Breaking out the number of Americans without a government ID by race, only 5% of whites fall into this category, while 13% of blacks and 10% of Hispanics lack photo IDs. It’s easy to see that Election Day ID requirements disproportionally impacts people of color.
Come November 7, we’ll know how the voter turnout rate for this year’s midterms. If 2018 beats out 2014’s 36%, we’ll know that it wasn’t without overcoming significant inhibiting factors.
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