Understanding Barriers to Voter Registration — And How to Fix Them

By Kathleen Malloy

Tuesday, September 28, is the ninth annual National Voter Registration Day — founded in 2012 to celebrate nonpartisan civic participation in democracy. Thousands of local volunteers and voting rights groups across the country are mobilizing today at community centers, public libraries, college campuses, and more to register eligible voters. On its face, voter registration should be a simple process; however, the United States’ low voter registration rates compared to other democracies prove otherwise. Only 64 percent of the U.S. voting-age population is registered to vote. In comparison, more than 90 percent of the voting-age population in the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, and Slovakia are registered. This gap is substantial, but it does not have to be.

Compared to other developed nations, registering to vote in the United States can be an inaccessible process that prevents many eligible voters, particularly Black, Brown, Native, and rural voters, from casting their ballot. In most democracies, national governments bear responsibility for registering citizens to vote, whether through automatic voter registration or aggressive outreach efforts. The United States, however, places the onus for registering on individual voters who must navigate an often complex system of state and local election laws. 

Before the 2020 election, I coordinated voter registration efforts on my college campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Organizing these efforts highlighted the pitfalls of the voter registration system in the United States. Some students who stopped by our registration tables did not realize they had to re-register after changing addresses, even if they just moved from one apartment to another in the same building. Others did not realize they could vote in Madison if they were from other parts of the state or country. Many students were confused about what paperwork they needed to register or did not have the right paperwork with them. When we told students they could register on Election Day in Wisconsin, many were unaware that this was an option. Even though Wisconsin has same-day registration, which allows citizens to register and vote on the same day, students need to know what paperwork and identification to bring with them to the polls to register — and many did not.

My experience with voter registration confusion at UW-Madison is not unique. Unlike other democracies, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, voter registration in the United States is decentralized and the responsibility of individual voters. This makes it difficult for voters — particularly new voters, voters with little experience engaging with political institutions, and voters with fewer resources — to know how to register. After the 2016 election, one in four unregistered voters cited recently changing their address, forgetting to register, time constraints, and confusion over how to register as reasons for not registering and voting. This number was even higher for young people, as 42 percent of unregistered 18-24-year-olds cited the former reasons for not registering.

Though America’s registration system is confusing on its own, many states have adopted election laws and policies that create further barriers to voter registration, making it difficult for eligible voters to cast their ballots. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires certain government agencies, such as Departments of Motor Vehicles and disability service offices, to provide voter registration services. However, states often fail to consistently and accessibly provide voter registration services to eligible voters. For example, some states limit voter registration to in-person transactions, even though many Americans interact with government agencies online. Lawsuits in Texas and Georgia forced the states to provide voter registration services in online transactions.

Further, documentary proof of voting eligibility laws disproportionately burden communities of color, naturalized voters, and low-income individuals. Many states require additional documentation to prove voting eligibility, such as a passport, birth certificate, or naturalization papers. Approximately 11 million native-born American citizens lack access to a passport or birth certificate; low-income voters are nearly twice as likely to lack these documents as voters with higher incomes, and Black voters are more likely to lack these documents than White voters. For naturalized citizens, obtaining a Certificate of Naturalization costs $555.

These are only two examples of barriers to registration — other barriers include restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts, polling place closures, and inflexible voting hours. With confusing and burdensome voter registration laws, our country’s relatively low voter registration rates compared to other democracies is no surprise. Moreover, these barriers disproportionately harm communities of color, low-income people, and young people, which contributes to persistent gaps in voting participation along racial, educational, and income differences.

Our democracy depends on civic engagement, yet our current system of voter registration hinders participation, particularly for marginalized communities. However, making the system accessible is within our reach. Many states have already enacted policies that reduce barriers to voter registration. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. have adopted automatic voter registration (AVR) to automatically register eligible citizens who interact with government agencies that offer voter registration services, such as the DMV, social security agencies, or public universities. In Georgia, registrations increased by 94 percent after the state implemented AVR.

Same-day registration (SDR) prevents scenarios where unregistered eligible voters cannot vote on Election Day. SDR also protects voters from improper voter roll purges and registration errors. Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. have passed some form of SDR; on average, states with SDR experienced a 5 percent increase in voter participation and report the highest participation rates in the country.

Expanding online voter registration systems can also increase voter registration. Thirty-nine states and Washington, D.C. currently offer online voter registration, which played a critical role in mobilizing voters throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. States can also choose to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds who interact with government agencies that provide voter registration services. Florida has adopted a pre-registration policy that has improved youth voting participation by roughly 5 percent.

The Freedom to Vote Act, which is now being considered by the U.S. Senate, would create national standards for federal elections through automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and online registration, creating a uniform, accessible, and fair system of voter registration.

Recent attacks on voter registration and voting processes in states like Georgia and Texas have magnified the daunting barriers Americans face when casting their ballot. Despite these obstacles, many activists, civil rights groups, and voters have continued to show a commitment to building an inclusive democracy through voter outreach efforts and voting advocacy. National Voter Registration Day is one example; since its inception in 2012, 4.5 million voters have registered on this day. This number is a testament to the dedication and perseverance of thousands of voting rights groups, activists, volunteers, and citizens who are committed to the idea that participation in civic life is core to our identity as Americans and to the strength of our democracy.

Though we must continue to advocate for accessible, fair voter registration policies, today is a day to celebrate the work so many activists have done to get voters to the polls by making sure that you, your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your community members are registered to vote — and tomorrow, continue advocating for an election system that fully facilitates civic participation for all Americans.

Information about registering to vote is available here.

Kathleen Malloy is a fall 2021 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.