Voter registration deadlines suppressed up to 4 million votes in 2012

New analysis conducted by a team of political scientists, led by Carroll College professor Alex Street, shows that an alarmingly high number of American citizens want to vote, but can’t due to voter registration deadlines.

The study was fairly straightforward: the researchers looked at the number of times people Googled “register to vote,” along with a few other related queries, during the weeks leading up to Election Day in 2012. They then compared those searches to data on when and how many people actually registered to vote, finding that “daily web search volume is closely correlated with the daily number registering, when registration is open.”

They then modeled what registration volume would have been in a counterfactual setting, in which every state extended their voter registration deadline through Election Day, and found that an additional three to four million people would have registered to vote had no deadlines been in effect.

Street, et al’s analysis is a new way of saying what we’ve known for a while: voter registration deadlines, and voter registration requirements to begin with, are much stronger barriers to entry in the voting market than long lines or faulty machines. The Census conducts a postelection survey after every presidential election, and consistently finds that millions of would-be voters want to register and vote, but can’t due to deadlines and other access issues.

The bigger point highlighted by the study is that these citizens don’t identify as non-voters by any stretch of the imagination. They’re actively seeking information as to how to cast their ballot. This flies in the face of prior assumptions about citizens who aren’t registered to vote: that they’re disinterested or lazy, and would not vote even if they were registered.

Vote via Shutterstock

Vote via Shutterstock

Of course, registering to vote isn’t the same thing as actually casting a ballot, so if Street, et al are right and every state moved to Election Day registration, we probably wouldn’t see a full 3-4 million extra votes coming out of those extra 3-4 million registrations. However, if registration requirements were removed altogether, and all of the roughly 33 million eligible, unregistered citizens became registered overnight, that could change quite a bit. Oregon recently became the first state to adopt such a system (while North Dakota never got around to enacting voter registration at all); other states should follow suit.

Voter registration originated in this country as a way to disenfranchise immigrants and poor people in the early 1800s, and was kept around as a way to disenfranchise African-Americans in the early 1900s. If we’re going to continue to be one of the only industrialized democracies in the world that places the burden of voter registration on the citizen instead of the state, we’re going to need a better reason. Especially since it’s having large, material effects on our elections.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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22 Responses to “Voter registration deadlines suppressed up to 4 million votes in 2012”

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  6. nicho says:

    When I was in college, I played in a weekly card game with folks from work. Then, I found out that the game was crooked. The husband and wife who were hosting it were cheating. I stopped playing, figuring that playing in a rigged game was just stupid. Now, we know that out electoral system is rigged. Candidates are pre-selected by the corporations, registration is rigged, voter-ID laws disenfanchise hundreds of thousands of people, voters in Democratic areas have to wait hours and hours in line, while corporatiat voters don’t have to wait, and the voting machines themselves are totally hackable. And yet, knowing all this, people continue to participate in the charade, giving the illusion that we have a democracy.

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  8. Indigo says:

    Yes, that happened. The bigger problem is that there’s been no effort to correct that. None that I know of, anyhow.

  9. Houndentenor says:

    In many countries there is a national ID of some sort AND when you move you are required to register your address with the local police precinct. (I’ve heard stories about the days of waiting in lines whenever you move to Germany. Other countries seem to have similar rules. note: a German driver’s license is issued once and never needs to be renewed. People showed me their picture on the license from when they were a teenager in the 50s or 60s. It was a hoot.) Anyway, if such an accounting of who lives where existed, voter registration would be far simpler. We do not and because of conspiracy theory nuts both left and right that is never going to happen.

  10. Houndentenor says:

    Maybe that’s the rule where you live. I always registered to vote by mail (In Texas, Arkansas, Ohio and New York) and not once did I have to show ID to register. Now they may have checked my information against DMV records but I never got an Ohio driver’s license so I’m not sure how they verified me and my address if that is so.

  11. Houndentenor says:

    The last thing an undocumented person wants is to draw attention to themselves so they can be identified as such and deported. The idea that they are showing up to vote is absurd.

    and the implementation of these laws is agist and racist. I voted last year in a college town with a driver’s license from the other side of a very large state. No one even blinked but then I’m over 40 and white. I doubt a minority person or a 20 year old would have been allowed to vote with the same situation.

  12. Houndentenor says:

    Because many poor people do not have a car and therefore no driver’s license. they can get an ID card but that requires paying a fee and taking a day off work which is a problem when you aren’t really even making it from one paycheck to the next on what you make. Moving my driver’s license back to Texas required three trips because the first two times the “computers were down” and when I finally went when that wasn’t the case I waited hours to get to a window to take care of what ought to be a simple matter.

    There is also no evidence of this voter fraud that Republicans keep warning us about. There have been quite a few studies and they found very little and certainly not enough to alter the outcome of even the closest elections.

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  14. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Not from Minnesota are you? If you show a current electric bill with your current address, you are registered.

  15. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Maybe it has something to do with it being a stupid question. Voter registration varies widely throughout the country. Birth certificates prove nothing. An U.S.A. citizen does not have to be born in the United States (think Ted Cruz and he wouldn’t have naturalization papers). A driver’s license? You don’t need to be a citizen to drive. SSA card? You don’t need to be a citizen to pay into SSA. Are you going to go by how they look? I definitely look Latino, but my family has lived in the continental United States since the first half of the 19th century. So how do you suggest someone prove they are a citizen? A polygraph?

    As Bill Perdue said below, the term isn’t “illegals”. If you must marginalize them, the word is “undocumented”, but I doubt you really care. When you wrote “illegals”, you told us all we need to know about you.

  16. Bill_Perdue says:

    The use of the term ‘illegal’ to describe immigrant and imported workers is racist.

  17. Naja pallida says:

    Except there is absolutely zero evidence of “illegals” showing up at the polls trying to vote. Anywhere. Ever. The entire concept of all these “illegals” showing up to the polls is entirely a fevered hallucination of crazy people with a tenuous grasp on reality. Voter fraud in general is exceptionally rare. Voter ID laws do not even attempt address the real kinds of electoral fraud that have actually happened.

    The real problem is that the laws for voting, the methods of voting, even the length of time one is permitted to vote, all vary by state – even by precinct. There are no equal rights when it comes to voting, when there should be. Voter ID laws are written very carefully and specifically to put the burden on particular people; a concealed carry permit is valid ID, but a university ID card isn’t? Do we really expect a 92 year old grandma who has voted in every election since Roosevelt to suddenly go out and get a new form of ID that she’s never ever needed before? Or how poorer people disproportionately do not have the forms of ID that they’re requiring?

  18. Bill_Perdue says:

    The US is a banana republic and voting rights, as well as the rights of leftist parties are always going to be repressed by right wing parties like the Democrats and Republicans.

    The only real an effective force for change is via unions, the movements of people of color and movements like the anti-war movement. They get things done. Voting doesn’t.

  19. george woelfel says:

    go volunteer as a election official during the next election and find out what you’re thinking is wrong. You just don’t show up and vote. You’ve got to be registered! When you registered you showed an approved government ID to register. Immigrants (Non -citizens) Drivers license are different from your US Citizens Drivers license by number or color coded. A non citizen with a different numbered/color coded drivers license can’t vote just like a US citizen who didn’t register can’t vote! Your premise that anybody that shows up at the election polls can vote that hasn’t registered is not valid.

  20. Wolf2k13 says:

    Regardless of “why” registration was implemented originally, I don’t understand why it’s a problem today. With so many illegals (who have no voting rights under our laws) in the country, what is the problem with requiring people to prove they are citizens and allowed to vote before allowing them to vote? I never get an answer when I ask that question. Wonder why that is…

  21. ComradeRutherford says:

    As you point out, this is intended to prevent citizens from voting. No Republican or Democrat wants more people voting, the Dems might win more elections if that were to happen, and no Serious Democrat wants that.

  22. therling says:

    If gun purchasers can get an instant background check and immediately walk out of the store with a gun, surely we could do the same for voters.

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