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States wanting high voter turnout: consider Election Day registration

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When Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s secretary of state, is asked why the Gopher state consistently has the highest voter turnout in the nation, he lists a number of things - active third-parties, 30,000 volunteer election judges and training voters by having them use the state’s voting system to judge food competitions at the state fair.

But the first thing on his list, “the clearly most important,” is Election Day registration, when the state typically registers half a million new voters the day of a presidential election. Ritchie said 61 percent of Minnesotans who have voted have registered and voted at the same time and place.

Wisconsin has a similar answer to the high-turnout question. About 70 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots in recent presidential elections, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University.

“One of the things we have had institutionally that has been a factor in high voter turnout – Election Day registration,” said Kevin J. Kennedy, director and general counsel for Wisconsin’s government accountability board. “Sometimes people don’t pay attention to the election until right before the elections, and that’s one of the benefits of Election Day registration.”

Turnout depends on numerous factors, many out of the states' control. States with the highest turnouts often have close elections and have been bombarded with political ads and candidate appearances.

But states such as Texas and California can’t be changed into swing states overnight. From what the states do control – voter ID laws, early voting, whether an excuse is needed for absentee voting – Election Day registration seems to make the biggest difference.

Eight states and Washington, D.C., had Election Day registration in 2012, the same number as in 2008, minus D.C. Half of those states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire – lead the nation in turnout, according to early 2012 turnout numbers from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate and Bipartisan Policy Center.

In 2008, Election Day registration states had the five highest turnouts, and states allowing voters to vote and register on the same day had an average turnout of 69 percent, 7 percentage points higher than states without it.

California and Connecticut same-day registration laws take effect this year.

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said his research has shown that a state adopting early voting will increase turnout 4 to 6 percentage points. It doesn’t benefit only those who forgot to register. It also helps those who have moved or married to update their information at the polling place and vote.

“It’s not the hot reform, which is ironic because it would do the most to help with voter turnout,” Burden said. “It’s one-stop shopping if you offer it at a polling place.”

Although it’s lauded by those managing elections in states with high turnout, voter turnout hasn’t soared in every state where the policy exists.

When Iowa first used Election Day registration in 2008, voter turnout dropped half a percentage point from 2004. Idaho, which has had Election Day registration since 1994, has a turnout lagging behind Nebraska and Connecticut, non-competitive states with equal or more restrictive voter ID laws.

Michael J. Hanmer, an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland said the difference Election Day registration can make is negligible. Offering registration the same day as voting can help, but only if the state wants it.

“When it comes from the ground from the states interested in doing this and they’re active in promoting it, I think it can have a small effect,” Hanmer said.

States such as New Hampshire and Idaho adopted the policy in the 1990s to avoid having to comply with the National Voter Registration Act. As a result, Hanmer said, the policy didn’t have a large effect on voter turnout in the state.

Even the states that have high voter turnout have run into problems with Election Day registration. In February, two Minnesota groups sued the state alleging the Election Day registration allowed ineligible people to register and vote, either because they were in the wrong precinct, not citizens or felons not yet able to vote.

Andy Cilek, executive director of the Minnesota Voter Alliance said the state identified 48,545 votes as “challenged” – either the registration data did not match the state’s or a postcard sent to the address was returned undeliverable.

“The idea voting is a big huge right is very misleading,” Cilek said. “I don’t want my vote diluted by ineligible voters.”

Cilek doesn’t think the discrepancy means Election Day registration should be done away with. Instead, he suggested voters whose eligibility was questioned could fill out provisional ballots that would be counted once the state was sure the voter met all qualifications.

A judge ruled in favor of the state in August but the ruling has been appealed.

Despite the outcome of the lawsuit, both Ritchie and Hanmer said policy can only go part way in getting out the vote. At the end of the day, voter turnout depends on how each individual feels.

“The key to increasing turnout is individual motivation that’s something that is harder to change quickly,” Hanmer said. “Certainly, laws and policies that make it easier to vote should contribute, but those laws and policies on their own aren’t going to be decisive.”

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