Voter registration in the United States takes place at the county level in many states and at the municipal level in several states, and is a prerequisite to voting at federal, state and local elections. The only exception is North Dakota, which does not require registration, although North Dakota law allows cities to register voters for city elections. The majority of states set cutoff dates for voter registration, ranging from 2 to 4 weeks before an election; while a third of states have Election Day or "same-day" voter registration which enables eligible citizens to register or update their registration when they vote before or on Election Day.
It has been argued that some registration requirements deter some people (especially disadvantaged people) from registering and therefore exercising their right to vote, resulting in a lower voter turnout. According to a 2012 study, 24% of the voting-eligible population in the United States are not registered to vote, equaling some 51 million U.S. citizens. While voters traditionally had to register at government offices by a certain period of time before an election, in the mid-1990s, the federal government made efforts to facilitate registering, in an attempt to increase turnout. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "Motor Voter" law) now requires state governments to either provide uniform opt-in registration services through drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration, or to allow Election Day voter registration, where voters can register at polling places immediately prior to voting. In 2016, Oregon became the first state to make voter registration fully automatic (opt-out) when issuing driver licenses and ID cards, since followed by four more states. Political parties and other organizations sometimes hold voter registration drives to register new voters.
While the United States Congress has jurisdiction over laws applying to federal elections, it has deferred the making of most aspects of election laws to the states. The United States Constitution prohibits states from restricting voting rights in ways that infringe on a person's right to equal protection under the law (14th Amendment), on the basis of race (15th Amendment), on the basis of sex (19th Amendment), on the basis of having failed to pay a poll tax or any tax (24th Amendment), or on the basis of age for persons age 18 and older (26th Amendment). The administration of elections, however, vary widely across jurisdictions.
Only US citizens have the right to vote in federal elections. In a few cases, permanent residents ("green card" holders) have registered to vote and have cast ballots without realizing that doing so was illegal. Non-citizens convicted in criminal court of having made a false claim of citizenship for the purpose of registering to vote in a federal election can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year. Deportation and removal proceedings have resulted from several such cases. Some states prohibit convicted felons from voting, a practice known as felony disenfranchisement. Of these states, some prohibit voting only during parole or probation but allow voting after. A small number of states may require repeat offenders to have their voting rights restored through court action.
A 2012 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that 24% of the voting-eligible population in the United States are not registered to vote, a percentage that represents "at least 51 million eligible U.S. citizens." the study suggests that registration requirements contribute to discouraging people from exercising their right to vote, thereby causing a lower voter turnout. The extent of discouragement and its effect on increasing the socioeconomic bias of the electorate however remain contested.
In a 1980 landmark study, Raymond E. Wolfinger and Steven J. Rosenstone came to the conclusion that less restrictive registration requirements would substantially increase the electoral turnout. According to their probit analysis, if all states adopted the procedures of the most permissive state regulations, which would mean:
(p 73) turnout in the 1972 presidential election would have been 9.1% higher, with 12.2 million additional people having voted. In a seminal 1988 book, sociologists Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven argued that lowering registration requirements would improve socioeconomic equality in the composition of the electorate.
Findings such as this have inspired lawmakers to facilitate the registration process, eventually leading to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (or "Motor Voter" act) that required states to allow voter registration at various public offices, including drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, as well as mail-in registration, unless a state adopts Election Day voter registration. The way towards passing this piece of federal legislation was however lengthy and rocky, as these reforms were highly contested. In an expanded 1990 edition of their 1988 book, titled "Why Americans still don't vote: and why politicians want it that way," Cloward and Piven argued that the reforms were expected to encourage less-privileged groups which happen to lean towards the Democratic Party.
While the turnout at federal elections did substantially increase following the electoral reforms, the effect fell short of Wolfinger and Rosenstone's expectations while Cloward's and Piven's hope of improving the demographic representativeness of the electorate wasn't fulfilled at all. Political scientist Adam Berinsky concluded in a 2005 article that the reforms designed to make voting "easier" in their entirety had an opposite effect, actually increasing the preexisting socioeconomic biases by ensuring "that those citizens who are most engaged with the political world – those with politically relevant resources – continue to participate, whereas those individuals without such resources fall by the wayside." As Berinsky reaffirms in a 2016 piece, the only way to increase turnout while improving representativeness is making more people become interested in politics.
Traditionally, voters have had to register at government offices to vote, but in 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the "Motor Voter" law, which came into effect on January 1, 1995, to make registering easier, in an attempt to increase turnout. The law requires state governments to provide opt-in registration services through drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration, though the States which since March 11, 1993, have not required voter registration for federal elections or had same-day voter registration on Election Day were exempt from the Act. Six states qualify for the exemption: North Dakota (which does not have registration), Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
An increasing number of states allow online voter registration. As of May 9, 2016, the states that have online registration are:
|State||Year enacted||Bill number||Year implemented||Website|
|Alabama||n/a||No legislation required||2016||Alabama Votes|
|Alaska||n/a||No legislation required||2015||Alaska Online Voter Registration|
|Arizona||n/a||No legislation required||2002||EZ Voter Registration|
|California||2011||SB 397||2012||California Online Voter Registration|
|Colorado||2009||HB 1160||2010||Go Vote Colorado|
|Connecticut||2012||HB 5024||2014||Connecticut Online Voter Registration|
|Delaware||n/a||No legislation required||2014||I Vote Delaware|
|District of Columbia||2014||B20-0264||2015||District of Columbia Online Voter Registration|
|Florida||2015||SB 228||2017||Register to Vote Florida Voter Registration|
|Georgia||2012||SB 92||2014||Georgia Online Voter Registration|
|Hawaii||2012||HB 1755||2015||Hawaii Online Voter Registration|
|Idaho||2016||SB 1297||n/a||Not implemented yet|
|Illinois||2013||HB 2418||2014||Illinois Online Voter Registration|
|Indiana||2009||HB 1346||2010||Indiana Online Voter Registration|
|Iowa||n/a||No legislation required||2016||Iowa Online Voter Registration|
|Kansas||n/a||No legislation required||2009||Kansas Online Voter Registration|
|Kentucky||n/a||No legislation required||2016||Kentucky Online Voter Registration|
|Louisiana||2009||HB 520||2010||Geaux Vote|
|Maryland||2011||HB 740||2012||Maryland Online Voter Registration|
|Massachusetts||2014||HB 3788||2015||Massachusetts Online Voter Registration|
|Minnesota [a]||2014||HF 2096||2013||MN Votes|
|Missouri [b]||n/a||No legislation required||2014||Vote Missouri|
|Nebraska||2014||LB 661||2015||Nebraska Online Voter Registration|
|Nevada||2011||AB 82||2012||Nevada Online Voter Registration|
|New Mexico||2015||SB 643||2016||New Mexico Online Voter Registration|
|New York [c]||n/a||No legislation required||2011||New York Electronic Voter Registration|
|Oklahoma||2015||SB 313||n/a||Not implemented yet|
|Pennsylvania||n/a||No legislation required||2015||PA Online Voter Registration|
|Rhode Island||2016||SB 2513||2016||RI Online Voter Registration|
|South Carolina||2012||HB 4945||2012||S.C. Online Voter Registration|
|Utah||2009||SB 25||2010||Utah Online Voter Registration|
|Vermont||n/a||No legislation required||2015||Vermont Online Voter Registration|
|Virginia||2013||HB 2341||2013||Virginia Voter Registration|
|West Virginia||2013||SB 477||2015||West Virginia Online Voter Registration|
From January 1, 2016, Oregon implemented the Motor Voter Act, a fully automatic (opt-out) voter registration system tied into the process of issuing driver licenses and ID cards. By April 2016 three more states – California, West Virginia, and Vermont – had followed suit, and in May 2016 Connecticut implemented it administratively rather than by legislation, bringing the number of states with automatic voter registration to five. Alaskan voters approved Measure 1 during the November 8, 2016, general election, allowing residents the ability to register to vote when applying annually for the state's Permanent Dividend Fund. Voter approval of Measure 1 made Alaska the first state to implement automatic (opt-in) voter registration via ballot initiative and the sixth state to implement automatic registration by any means including passing legislation. Several more states have considered legislation for automatic registration. On August 28, 2017, Governor Bruce Rauner signed Illinois SB1933, which sets implementation of automatic voter registration at motor vehicle agencies for July 1, 2018, and a year later at other state agencies.
The following states and DC have implemented automatic voter registration as of August 28, 2017:
|Alaska||Approval of Measure 1 on the November 8, 2016 ballot, instituting automatic voter registration through the state's Permanent Fund Dividend application|
|California||Legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on October 10, 2015|
|Connecticut||Implemented administratively by the Department of Motor Vehicles and Secretary of the State in May 2016|
|District of Columbia||Legislation (B21-0194) signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser on December 7, 2016. It became law in February 2017 after the 30-day Congressional review period passed.|
|Illinois||Legislation signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner on August 28, 2017|
|Oregon||Legislation signed by Gov. Kate Brown on March 16, 2015|
|Rhode Island||Legislation signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo on July 19, 2017|
|Vermont||Legislation signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin on April 27, 2016|
|West Virginia||Legislation signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on April 1, 2016|
The majority of states require voters to register two to four weeks before an election, with cutoff dates varying from 30 to 15 days.
Some states allow Election Day voter registration (also known as EDR) which enables eligible citizens to register to vote or update their registration when they arrive to vote. Some states call the procedure same-day registration (SDR) because voters can register and vote during an earlier voting period before Election Day.
EDR allows eligible citizens to register or update their registration at the polls or their local election office by showing valid identification to a poll worker or election official, who checks the identification, consults the registration list and, if they are not registered or the registration is out of date, registers them on the spot.
Five states are exempt from the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 because they have continuously since 1993 had EDR: Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Maine lost the exemption when it abolished EDR in 2011, though it was subsequently restored. North Dakota is also exempt because it does not have a registration requirement. Other states which have adopted some form of EDR include Colorado (2014), Connecticut (2012), Illinois (2015), Iowa (2008), Maine (1973), Montana (2006), Vermont (2017), and Washington DC. Connecticut and California both implemented EDR in 2012 and Connecticut started EDR with its municipal elections in 2013. Rhode Island has EDR for presidential elections. California will start in 2015 or once it has implemented its statewide voter registration database. Hawaii begins EDR in 2018. In June 2011, Maine abolished EDR, which had been in place since 1973, and abolished absentee voting during the two business days before an election. However, the stipulation banning EDR was overturned in a November 2011 citizen referendum ("people's veto") titled Question 1, when Maine voters reinstated EDR with 59% in favor.
Voter turnout is much higher in states using EDR than in states that do not. A 2013 report analyzing turnout in the 2012 United States presidential election, had SDR states averaging at a turnout of 71%, well above the average voter turn-out rate of 59% for non-SDR states. According to official turnout data report in the 2014 edition of America Goes to the Polls, voter turnout in EDR states has averaged 10–14 percent higher than states that lack that option. Research suggests that EDR increases turnout between three and fourteen percentage points. A 2004 study summarizes the impact of EDR on voter turnout as “about five percentage points”.
Political parties and other organizations sometimes hold voter registration drives, organized efforts to register groups of new voters.
In the 2004 case Charles H. Wesley Education Foundation v. Cathy Cox (Wesley v. Cox), it was held that private entities have a right, under the federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993, to engage in voter registration drives in Georgia (whose law required registration drives to be pre-cleared by the government agency) at times and locations of their choosing, without the presence or permission of state or local election officials.
Many states allow persons registering to vote to declare at the same time an affiliation with a political party. This declaration of affiliation does not cost money, and does not make the person a dues-paying member of a party. A party cannot prevent a voter from declaring his or her affiliation with them, but it can refuse requests for full membership. In some states, only voters affiliated with a party may vote in that party's primary elections, which are then called closed primaries. However, in a general election voters are free to vote for any candidate on the ballot, regardless of their declared affiliation. Declaring a party affiliation is never compulsory and the option also exists to declare oneself "independent".