Want more minorities to vote? Make it easier to register.

A brown hand casting a ballot
A brown hand casting a ballot
Illustration by Guillaume Federighi/City & State

Want more minorities to vote? Make it easier to register.

55% of people of color under 45 are registered vs. a whopping 75% of whites over 45
March 13, 2018

Just as he did in the previous two years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in this year’s State of the State address that he would try to make voting easier for New Yorkers. Last year, after nothing happened, Cuomo said he would tackle it after the state budget passed.

Since the governor’s main means of forcing the recalcitrant state Legislature to pass reforms is through his power over the budget, Cuomo essentially abandoned his voting rights agenda. Sure enough, it never became law.

If Cuomo does force the issue in the state budget this year, it is important that he and other voting rights supporters recognize that the single most effective mechanism for increasing turnout and making the electorate more diverse and representative is easing registration. (Worryingly, the budget recently proposed by the State Assembly does not include funding for automatic voter registration or same-day registration.)

We know registration is the key to turnout because of the experience of other states that have adopted a host of cutting-edge electoral reforms. Oregon now has automatic voter registration combined with mail-in voting, and it boasts among the highest turnout rates in the country. In Colorado, any time someone interacts with the state’s motor vehicles division, they are automatically registered to vote and a ballot is mailed to them. They can drop off that ballot at any “voter center,” rather than at just one specific polling location. Alternatively, they can mail their ballot back or vote in person at any voting center. Though many skeptics have claimed that voting reforms have minimal effects, Colorado’s system (and other accessible voting systems) has delivered consistently high turnout.

If every registered person of color under 45 voted, their turnout rate (55 percent) would be lower than the actual 2016 turnout for whites over 45 (67 percent).

Two of Cuomo’s least-controversial proposals are to create early voting, which exists in a majority of states and would allow voters to show up at a smaller number of polling places for a week or so before Election Day; and allowing voters to use an absentee ballot without providing a reason for not being able to vote on Election Day. These moves could bolster turnout, but alone, they would be inadequate. To significantly expand the electorate, the state Legislature must also embrace Cuomo’s proposals to adopt automatic voter registration, in which eligible voters are registered any time they present proof of residence to a state agency, such as at the DMV, and same-day voter registration at polling places.

And New York’s electorate is badly in need of expansion: New York’s turnout rate among eligible voters in 2016 was 57 percent, below the national turnout rate of 60 percent and even further behind states that have made voting easier, such as Oregon (68 percent), Minnesota (75 percent) and Colorado (72 percent). In the 2014 midterm election, only 29 percent of eligible New Yorkers voted, compared with 53 percent in Oregon and 55 percent in Colorado. In large part, this is because registration in New York is so inconvenient. The deadline for registering is 25 days before the election and the burden for registering rests with the individual (rather than the government, as it would in an automatic system).

The most rigorous analysis of voting reforms suggest a clear lesson: The most effective way to increase turnout is to remove registration barriers, which recent research shows disenfranchise millions of voters. In “Who Votes Now,” professors from American University and New York University found that eliminating registration barriers are the most effective ways to bolster turnout. Research by Harvard University political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere and University of Indiana political scientist David M. Konisky found that eliminating registration barriers altogether increases turnout by 10 percentage points.

My own research of Oregon’s automatic voter registration with political scientists Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes suggests that automatic voter registration increased turnout in Oregon by roughly 3 percentage points. More time and research will be needed, but most evidence suggests that the impact on turnout is real. In addition, automatic voter registration helped engage citizens who are most often excluded from voting: young people, low-income people, people of color and residents in rural areas.

Other work suggests that same-day registration has a powerful impact on turnout and reduces inequality of turnout based on age, education and income. An article in the American Journal of Political Science found that allowing young people to “preregister” to vote when they get their driver’s license has a powerful impact, increasing youth turnout between 2 to 8 percentage points.

Increasing the presence of underrepresented groups in the electorate affects public policy. For example, the passage of preregistration is associated with an increase in spending on higher education. This is in line with other research, which has documented powerful relationships between who is enfranchised and the distribution of government funding.

According to the most recent census data, there are huge disparities in voter registration, with 55 percent of people of color under 45 years old registered, compared to 75 percent of whites over 45. If every registered person of color under 45 voted, their turnout rate (55 percent) would be lower than the actual 2016 turnout for whites over 45 (67 percent). Making it difficult to register to vote creates a ceiling on participation for young people of color. Some also worry that newly registered voters won’t be informed, but political science research suggests that this is wrong: Individuals who become engaged inform themselves about politics.

Other progressive states like New Jersey and Washington are moving ahead with measures to ease voting and, crucially, registration. If New York does not do the same, its turnout rate will look even worse in comparison to its peers in the next election cycle.

Sean McElwee
is a policy analyst and writer based in New York City.