Voter registration initiatives

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

Voter registration initiatives are efforts to increase the number of registered voters and can include automatic voter registration (AVR), registration drives, policies that ease registration requirements, and efforts that expand the type and number of registration sites. Initiatives like AVR automatically register individuals to vote using data collected through state or local government departments and agencies1, 2. Alternatively, electronic registration gives individuals the opportunity to register when they engage in business with a government agency (e.g., renewing a driver’s license, applying for benefits)2. Initiatives that make registration more convenient include same-day registration, which allows individuals to register the same day they cast a ballot, as well as secure, online registration. Voter registration drives help eligible individuals register to vote and connect with voting resources3. Voter registration drives can be organized anywhere and commonly take place at college campuses, hospitals, workplaces, and income tax assistance centers4, 5.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased voter registration

  • Increased voting

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased political participation

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated scientifically supported.

There is strong evidence that voter registration initiatives increase voter registration and voting6, 7, 8, 9.

Automatic voter registration (AVR) appears to significantly increase voter registration8 and voting6, 9 in states with active policies. Oregon was the first state to implement an AVR law, in 201610. Oregon’s AVR law appears to increase voter registration among those who were otherwise unlikely to register, as well as increase voting9. A version of AVR that automatically re-registers individuals, as opposed to individuals who are unregistered, significantly increases voter turnout, particularly among voters registered as Republican or non-partisan, with no effect among voters registered as Democrat6. Experts suggest that aligning data collection in U.S. states using AVR would improve analyses of its effects11. In the current U.S. model, eligible voters can decline registration at point of enrollment (front-end) or submit an opt-out form after registration (back-end)8, 12. AVR models which are more automatic and universal have been proposed in the U.S.; in some states, AVR’s reach may be limited to specific agencies, like the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs)1, 8. However, compared to same-day registration or other initiatives focused on individuals already intending to vote, AVR reaches a larger pool of individuals, including those who may not have been planning to register or vote; experts suggest AVR’s effects on voting may emerge over the long-term10. AVR may increase political participation among those who choose to vote, following automatic registration9.

Same-day registration eases registration requirements by allowing eligible voters the convenience of registering to vote the same day they cast a ballot13. Same-day registration increases registration and voting among individuals ages 18-24 and is a preferred registration method for this group14. Other studies suggest same-day and election-day registration increase voting among individuals who use these processes15, 16, 17, 18. More research is needed to understand the effects of same-day registration on registered voter demographics19.

Online voter registration allows eligible voters to submit registration forms electronically through a secure online portal2, 20. Online registration may increase voter turnout among young people21, especially during presidential election years; young people may prefer online registration, which may in turn increase their political participation7. Electronic registration allows eligible voters to submit voter registration forms electronically when conducting business at a government office and is a key part of implementing AVR2. Experts suggest that modernized voter registration systems, which feature online registration, electronic registration, or both, may speed up the registration process, be more accurate than paper systems, and increase registration rates22.

Voter registration drives on college campuses can expand access to registration for individuals aged 18-24, a group that has historically had low voter turnout and often needs to re-register to vote due to address changes3, 23. A study at a Texas college suggests that students who registered at an on-campus voter registration drive voted at higher rates than other individuals aged 18-243. In a multi-state study, brief presentations on voting registration by college professors or student volunteers, followed by an opportunity to register to vote, led to increases in student registrations and voting23.

Expanding the number of registration sites to include locations that are regularly used by those eligible to vote, like health care settings and tax agencies, may increase voter registration4, 5, 24. Mandatory registration sites at public institutions require agencies to serve as a registration site but do not require individuals to register to vote; currently, many sites are discretionary24. Experts suggest that increasing the number of mandatory registration sites at public institutions, such as public schools, could increase access for all 18-year-olds enrolled in these institutions24. Experts recommend expanding voter registration resources at health care organizations and social service agencies4, 25, as well as giving individuals the opportunity to register to vote during tax preparation or filing5. A program to register individuals to vote at income tax assistance centers, which primarily serve individuals with lower incomes and from minority groups, doubled registration rates among those previously unregistered5, which may support civic participation.

Most U.S. states which have adopted modernized voter registration reforms (i.e., online registration and electronic registration) and versions of AVR to reduce registration barriers, report administrative savings, increased accuracy in registration data, and modest start-up costs1, 2. Changing public schools to mandatory voting registration sites, instead of discretionary ones, may lower the economic costs for individuals registering to vote24. Integrating voter registration into tax filing has been proposed as a low cost approach because it would use existing infrastructure, have minimal training and implementation costs, and is administratively efficient5.

Available evidence indicates that people with better physical and mental health have greater civic participation, including voting, volunteering, and membership in community groups and organizations, such as recreational teams or community gardens26, 27. Experts recommend encouraging civic participation from a young age to build a lifelong commitment to community engagement27. Poor physical and mental health can increase social isolation and may reduce civic participation. Individuals who experience negative health outcomes at a young age may be less likely to participate in civic engagement activities later in life. Additional research is needed to assess how individuals’ civic participation can support improvements to community infrastructure and policies that promote community health, which may in turn increase health equity26. Evidence suggests that civic participation may be associated with improved self-reported health, well-being, and emotional health; increased physical activity; and a greater sense of community27.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Voter registration initiatives such as automatic voter registration (AVR) have the potential to decrease disparities in voting registration and voting experienced by those from communities that are often marginalized, particularly individuals of racial and ethnic minorities and individuals with lower incomes9, 36. Other initiatives, such as online registration7 and voter registration drives3, 10, 23 have the potential to decrease disparities in voter registration and voting, primarily between young adults and older individuals.

Asian, Black, and Latino individuals are disproportionally underrepresented among individuals registered to vote and appear more so in election contexts where racial or ethnic minorities have a deciding role. According to a multi-decade study, evidence suggests that systematic disparities in voter registration are among the institutional features contributing to underrepresentation37. Other studies find that states with restrictive voter registration laws have disproportionately high voting turnout among those with higher incomes, indicating that state voter registration laws are a barrier to mobilizing individuals with lower incomes to vote. In states with proportionate turnout between voters with lower and higher incomes, states were less likely to pass legislation restricting eligibility for safety net programs38. Experts suggest that health and community-based organizations promote voter engagement among people of color, those earning lower incomes, and others in communities that may be marginalized, to increase such groups’ representation in government, and potentially create more equitable health policies which could decrease health disparities36.

Individuals registering through Oregon’s AVR process, which is located at state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs), appear to be younger, more likely to live in rural areas, to earn lower incomes, and to be from more ethnically diverse backgrounds, compared to people registered through traditional methods9. Voting registration systems with greater efficiency and accuracy, such as AVR through tax filing5, online, or electronic registration22 have the potential to reduce disparities in voter registration and voting access among eligible people identifying as minorities. A Wisconsin-based study found individuals identified as minorities and registered to vote were more than twice as likely to be removed from poll books due to their addresses being incorrectly flagged as out-of-date39, reflecting a need for improved accuracy and efficiency. Removing the requirement for voter registration also eliminates it as a barrier to voting and as an administrative burden. North Dakota is the only state without voter registration, which it abolished in 1951, though citizens eligible to vote still need a driver’s license, state-issued ID, or tribal ID40.

Systems that automatically register individuals to vote by as universal a method as possible, such as income tax filing, are inherently more inclusive. For this reason, proposals to increase voter registration and voting in the U.S. include components such as AVR; expanding the type and number of sites for mandatory voter registration; and even making voting legally compulsory, with fines or consequences for not voting24. Experts suggest AVR is an inclusive method of registering voters, especially those likely to experience barriers (e.g., individuals in hospitals, individuals eligible to vote but who are incarcerated, individuals with disabilities, individuals without stable housing, individuals with lower incomes)41. Most European nations, and overall, more than half of countries worldwide have compulsory voting registration, meaning individuals are registered automatically with information the government already has or are required to register themselves. India, the largest democracy in the world, compiles voter rolls automatically through census data collection42. Experts propose that the U.S. could follow models from democratic countries where the government manages voter registration, as this contributes to higher registration rates41. Canada and Australia both have national election authorities which use and manage a national voter registry, and many European countries have national administrative registries (where residents have national IDs and use a personal ID number for a variety of purposes) and use this system for voting eligibility and registration41.

The ability to register online may increase voter turnout during presidential election years, primarily among young people7. An analysis of AVR’s effects on registration suggests that AVR moderately increases overall registration among young people ages 18-24, as in Colorado, Illinois, and Connecticut10. A college campus-based study of the 2008 presidential election finds that partisan and non-partisan student-led voter registration drives appear to increase voting among those who register at the drive. Experts suggest that bipartisan or multi-partisan drives may better mobilize younger individuals to vote, compared with nonpartisan drives. Experts also note that campus-based registration drives attract students who may already be politically engaged, and that more research is needed regarding students who are not3.

What is the relevant historical background?

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 and granted states the primary responsibility to regulate elections43. In addition to voting rights for white, land-owning males, a handful of states initially allowed some (or free) Black male Americans to vote, while other states shifted to exclude them between 1792-183844, 45. Eventually, Congress and states amended the Constitution to expand federal voting eligibility to other U.S. citizens. Constitutional amendments were the result of organized, citizen-led movements that developed significant public support over time to expand voting rights to specific groups. In 1870, several years after the end of the Civil War (1861-65), the 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted Black men the right to vote46, while women did not receive the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 192047. Native Americans were not eligible to vote until Congress formally recognized them as U.S. citizens with the Snyder Act of 1924, 54 years after the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to U.S. male citizens48. People with disabilities and mental illness have been legally prevented from voting, along with those under guardianship, conservatorship, or with felony convictions who often also suffered from mental illness49. In the 20th century, a few laws were passed to increase accessibility for voters with disabilities, including the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Help America Vote Act of 200250. In 1992, the 26th Amendment expanded voter eligibility to U.S. citizens 18-years-old or older51.

Yet, even as voter eligibility was extended to more U.S. citizens, many states implemented exclusionary laws and practices that created structural barriers to prevent certain groups of people from voting44. In 1800, Massachusetts established the first state-run voter registration system, a practice that made it more difficult to register and to vote, especially for Americans who were Black, had low incomes, or were recent immigrants44. During the Jim Crow-era, literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation factors were used to suppress the Black vote52, resulting in only 3% of Black Americans registering to vote53. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which charged the federal government with ensuring that all citizens have the right to vote, regardless of race52. However, in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key component of the Voting Rights Act, which made it possible for states to pass laws to make voting more challenging. As recently as 2020, states implemented voter ID laws, tightened restrictions on vote-by-mail, and purged voter rolls, all of which can have a discriminatory effect on voters54.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law, streamlined the voter registration process so applications submitted for driver’s licenses and certain public assistance applications could automatically be used for voter registration30, 55. However, after the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 which established the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and mandated voter ID for new voters, with some states requiring identification for all voters55. Voter ID was intended to prevent voter fraud, yet it often creates an additional barrier to voting for those lacking access to the appropriate documentation54, 55. One study suggests that 3 to 4 million eligible Americans were unable to vote in the 2012 presidential election due to missed registration deadlines10.

Voter turnout in the U.S. trails that of other high-income countries. This is attributed in part to the considerable variation in voting policies, based on where a voter lives56.

Equity Considerations
  • Who is eligible to vote in your community, but not registered? What barriers do individuals in your community face when registering to vote? Which initiatives (e.g., automatic voter registration (AVR), online registration, same-day registration) would be most effective at reducing those barriers?
  • How can local election officials share information with voters to educate them about the available registration options? How can you direct voters to registration sites that are part of their everyday routines?
  • Which groups or individuals in your community are in a position to implement voter registration initiatives? How can you support efforts to improve voter registration opportunities in your community?
  • Who opposes and supports voter registration initiatives in your community? Why?
Implementation Examples

The U.S. census tracks voter demographic characteristics and offers maps and other visualizations of voting and registration in the U.S.28. The National Association of Secretaries of State compiles resources in English and Spanish to help individuals understand their voting eligibility, registration status, how to register, where to vote, and more29.

As of February 2023, versions of automatic voter registration (AVR) laws have been implemented in 22 states and Washington, D.C. States with more robust ARV systems offer a back-end opt-out, so eligible individuals are registered by default but can easily decline, as in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Some states have also expanded the types of registering agencies beyond Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) to include other state agencies, as well as health benefit exchanges, mobility certification offices, and tribal agencies. Alaska registers individuals through interactions with its Permanent Dividend Fund. AVR can also ease states’ voter registration list maintenance as it automatically updates existing registrant information with a current address30. Multiple proposals have been made in the U.S. to implement national versions of AVR. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) led proposals in 2017 and 2022 for the Register America to Vote Act, based on AVR’s increasing adoption in the U.S. The Register America to Vote Act would require states to automatically register eligible individuals to vote when they turn 18, require states’ DMVs to automatically register individuals, and provide $3 billion USD in grants for states to implement the proposal31, 32.

Some health care organizations are partnering with non-profits, like Vot-ER, to connect patients with voter registration resources33. Med Out the Vote, an initiative of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), partners with health institutions to promote voting resources for everyone in their system including students, staff, and patients34. Massachusetts General Hospital has implemented iPad-based kiosks for patients, visitors, and staff to check their voter registration status and register to vote35.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

NASS-Vote - National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). Can I vote. Washington, D.C.

BC-AVR 2021 - Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law. Automatic voter registration and modernization in the States. 2021.

BC-AVR 2015 - Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law. Automatic and permanent voter registration: How it works. 2015.

Martin 2021a - Martin A, Raja A, Meese H. Health care-based voter registration: A new kind of healing. International Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2021;14(26):1-3.

Vot-ER - Vot-ER. Vot-ER is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to integrate civic engagement into healthcare.

Brookings-Williamson 2022 - Williamson V. Using individual income tax data in automatic voter registration systems: A state-by-state analysis. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2022.

CID-Voting Location Siting Tool - Center for Inclusive Democracy (CID). Voting location and outreach tool. University of Southern California (USC).

Rock the Vote-Tech - Rock the Vote. Tech for civic engagement: Online voter registration tool.

Footnotes

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 BC-AVR 2016 - Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law. The case for automatic voter registration. 2016.

2 BC-AVR 2021 - Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law. Automatic voter registration and modernization in the States. 2021.

3 Ulbig 2011 - Ulbig SG, Waggener T. Getting registered and getting to the polls: The impact of voter registration strategy and information provision on turnout of college students. PS: Political Science and Politics. 2011;44(3):544-551.

4 Liggett 2014 - Liggett A, Sharma M, Nakamura Y, Villar R, Selwyn P. Results of a voter registration project at 2 family medicine residency clinics in the Bronx, New York. Annals of Family Medicine. 2014;12(5):466-469.

5 Brookings-Williamson 2019 - Williamson V. The filer voter experiment: How effective is voter registration at tax time? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2019.

6 Kim 2022 - Kim SS. Automatic voter reregistration as a housewarming gift: Quantifying causal effects on turnout using movers. American Political Science Review. 2022:1-8.

7 Yu 2019 - Yu J. Does state online voter registration increase voter turnout? Social Science Quarterly. 2019;100(3):620-634.

8 BC-Morris 2019 - Morris K, Dunphy P. AVR impact on state voter registration. Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law; 2019.

9 CAP-Griffin 2017 - Griffin R, Gronke P, Wang T, Kennedy L. Who votes with automatic voter registration? Impact analysis of Oregon’s first-in-the-nation program. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress; 2017.

10 CCEP-McGhee 2020 - McGhee E, Romero M. Effects of automatic voter registration in the United States. Sacramento: California Civic Engagement Project at University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy; 2020.

11 Pew-Motor Voter 2014 - The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew). Measuring Motor Voter. 2014.

12 DFP-Fordham 2022 - Fordham RFF. Automatic voter registration report. Data for Progress (DFP); 2022.

13 NCSL-SDR - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Same-day voter registration (SDR). 2023.

14 Grumbach 2022 - Grumbach JM, Hill C. Rock the registration: Same day registration increases turnout of young voters. Journal of Politics. 2022;84(1):405-417.

15 Fullmer 2015a - Fullmer EB. Early voting: Do more sites lead to higher turnout? Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. 2015;14(2):81-96.

16 Burden 2014 - Burden B, Canon D, Mayer K, Moynihan D. Election laws, mobilization, and turnout: The unanticipated consequences of election reform. American Journal of Political Science. 2014;58(1):95-109.

17 Brians 1999 - Brians CL, Grofman B. When registration barriers fall, who votes?: An empirical test of a rational choice model. Public Choice. 1999;99:161-176.

18 Fenster 1994 - Fenster MJ. The impact of allowing day of registration voting on turnout in U.S. elections from 1960 to 1992: A research note. American Politics Quarterly. 1994;22(1):74-87.

19 Cole 2016 - Cole JB. Does same day registration lead to repeat customers at the ballot box? Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. 2016;15(4):271-284.

20 NCSL-Online voter registration - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Online voter registration. 2023.

21 Garnett 2022 - Garnett HA. Registration innovation: The impact of online registration and automatic voter registration in the United States. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. 2022;21(1):34-45.

22 BC-Perez 2015 - Pérez M, Zhou L, Maluk H. Voter registration in a digital age: 2015 update. Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law; 2015.

23 Bennion 2016 - Bennion EA, Nickerson DW. I will register and vote, if you teach me how: A field experiment testing voter registration in college classrooms. PS: Political Science and Politics. 2016;49(4):867-871.

24 Sparacino 2022 - Sparacino D. Voter registration, turnout, and habitual voting theory: The case for schools as mandatory registration locations. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy. 2022;68(1):273-302.

25 Peeples 2020 - Peeples L. U.S. doctors and hospitals offer a new treatment: Voter registration. BMJ. 2020;371:m3895.

26 RAND-Nelson 2019 - Nelson C, Sloan J, Chandra A. Examining civic engagement links to health: Findings from the literature and implications for culture of health. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2019.

27 US DHHS-OASH-HP 2030 CP - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (OASH). Healthy People 2030. Civic participation.

28 US Census-Voting - U.S. Census Bureau. Public Sector: Voting and registration. 2022.

29 NASS-Vote - National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). Can I vote. Washington, D.C.

30 NCSL-AVR - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Automatic voter registration. 2023.

31 Klobuchar 2022 - United States Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN). Press Release: Klobuchar, colleagues introduce legislation to make registering to vote easier for all Americans. June 8, 2022.

32 S 4335 - 117th Congress 2021-2022. Senate (S) 4335: Register America to Vote Act of 2022.

33 Vot-ER - Vot-ER. Vot-ER is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to integrate civic engagement into healthcare.

34 Med Out the Vote - Med Out the Vote, an initiative of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA).

35 Delaney 2020 - Delaney CM. Voter registration is part of physician’s mission. Boston: Massachusetts General Hospital; 2020.

36 Yagoda 2019 - Yagoda N. Addressing health disparities through voter engagement. Annals of Family Medicine. 2019;17(5):459-461.

37 NBER-Ricca 2022 - Ricca F, Trebbi F. Minority underrepresentation in U.S. cities. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2022: Working Paper 29738.

38 Avery 2005 - Avery JM, Peffley M. Voter registration requirements, voter turnout, and welfare eligibility policy: Class bias matters. State Politics & Policy Quarterly. 2005;5(1):47-67.

39 Huber 2021 - Huber GA, Meredith M, Morse M, Steele K. The racial burden of voter list maintenance errors: Evidence from Wisconsin’s supplemental movers poll books. Science Advances. 2021;7(8):eabe4498.

40 ND-VR 2021 - North Dakota (ND) Secretary of State. North Dakota...the only state without voter registration. 2021.

41 FV-Robert 2009 - Robert E. Universal voter registration: An international perspective. Silver Spring, MD: FairVote; 2009.

42 Pew-Schumacher 2020 - The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew). From voter registration to mail in ballots, how do countries around the world run their elections? 2020.

43 US Const. I-IV - U.S. Const. art. I, § IV.

44 Seven 2018 - Seven J. The exclusionary history of voter registration dates to 1800. History. 2018.

45 Smith 1998 - Smith EL. The end of Black voting rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837-1838. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. 1998;65(3):279-299.

46 US Const. XIV - U.S. Const. amend. VIV.

47 US Const. XIX - U.S. Const. amend. XIX.

48 LOC-NA - Library of Congress. Classroom materials at the Library of Congress: Voting rights for Native Americans.

49 Syed 2022 - Syed I, Bishop M, Brannon S, Hudson E, Lee K. Designing accessible elections: Recommendations from disability voting rights advocates. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. 2022;21(1):60-83.

50 Tokaji 2007 - Tokaji DP, Colker R. Absentee voting by people with disabilities: Promoting access and integrity. McGeorge Law Review. 2007;38(4):1015-1064.

51 US Const. XXVI - U.S. Const. amend. XXVI.

52 LOC-AA - Library of Congress. Classroom materials at the Library of Congress: Voting rights for African Americans.

53 ACLU-VRA - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Voting Rights Act: Major dates in history.

54 BC-Wilder 2021 - Wilder W. Voter suppression in 2020. Brennan Center for Justice (BC), New York University School of Law; 2021.

55 Larocca 2011 - Larocca R, Klemanski JS. U.S. state election reform and turnout in presidential elections. State Politics & Policy Quarterly. 2011;11(1):76-101.

56 Pew-DeSilver 2022 - DeSilver D. Turnout in U.S. has soared in recent elections but by some measures still trails that of many other countries. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center; 2022.

Date Last Updated