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Same-day registration is essential to voting rights debate

The Hill logo The Hill 7/1/2021 Laura Williamson and Jesse Rhodes , opinion contributors
a group of people standing in a room: Same-day registration is essential to voting rights debate © Getty Same-day registration is essential to voting rights debate

As state legislatures from Arizona to Georgia continue to wage war on voting rights, Senate Democrats rallied last week around legislation that would, among other things, safeguard the fundamental right to vote. This strong showing of support in the Senate moves us one step closer to passage of the For the People Act.

Although the path forward is still uncertain, one thing is clear: There is momentum around voting rights, and Americans across the country are ready for our elected officials to do everything they can to make it easier - not harder - to vote.

Now, it's up to our leaders in Congress to ensure that the final legislation does everything possible to advance racial equity in a democracy with a troubling history of race-based exclusion. Essential to this pursuit is same-day voter registration.

Same-day registration is a common sense, tried and true reform that has been around in some states since the 70s. It's time to bring it to voters in all states. A supermajority of Americans (61 percent) supports same-day registration, the efficacy and integrity of which are already evident in 21 states and Washington, D.C.

And now, new Demos research suggests that same-day registration, which ensures all eligible people can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts at the same time, reduces barriers to the ballot box and boosts turnout for Black and Latinx Americans.

The systemic racism baked into today's voter registration policies is not new - in fact, it dates back to the very development of state registration laws. The practice of requiring people to register to vote began in the 19th century. In many places, registration requirements served as a barrier to the ballot box for Black people, working-class people, and immigrants. Many states began adopting voter registration laws during or just after Reconstruction, when Black people briefly built substantial - and potentially transformative - political power. In response, lawmakers across the South called constitutional conventions with the explicit purpose of establishing white supremacy.

The resulting post-Reconstruction state constitutions enshrined poll taxes, literacy tests, employment and property requirements, and grandfather clauses that effectively made whiteness and maleness prerequisites for voter registration. But efforts to use registration laws to limit the political power of people of color and the working poor were not limited to the South. California's 1866 Registry Act required a prospective voter to register with the clerk three months before Election Day and whenever applicable, provide original, court-sealed naturalization papers or confirmation of eligibility by two legal (i.e. white male) voters.

Today, thanks largely to Black and Brown-led organizing over decades, landmark laws like the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) have eliminated the most obvious discriminatory features of state registration laws from the books. However, persistent racial and ethnic gaps in registration rates reveal that registration laws continue to impose racially disparate obstacles to voting. During the November 2020 elections, only 69 percent of eligible Black people and 61 percent of eligible Latinx people were registered to vote, compared to 77 percent of eligible white people. And while organizers have worked tirelessly to ensure that eligible people are able to register to vote, some states have established dubious practices, such as purges of "inactive" registrations or registrations with typos, which disproportionately burden voters of color.

A clear solution to these problems is simply to eliminate the requirement that voters register by an arbitrary deadline in advance of an election - and instead allow eligible voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day. Nearly half the states - including states controlled by Republicans and by Democrats - already allow this, demonstrating the administrative feasibility and bipartisan nature of same-day registration. In those states, same-day registration provides an important failsafe for voters who don't make it on the registration rolls before the election begins, and guards against bad practices like voter roll purges, restrictions on third-party voter registration and forcing eligible voters to cast provisional ballots that may not count, all of which affect the ability of voters of color to cast a ballot that counts.

More importantly, previous research shows that same-day registration boosts voter turnout, both overall and among younger voters in particular. Our new research finds that turnout among Black and Latinx voters is usually higher in states with same-day registration.

For example, we found that across several Midwest states in 2016, average Black and Latinx voter turnout was higher - by 7 percentage points and 17 percentage points - in states that allow same-day registration than in states that do not. In the South Atlantic states, when we adjust for the politically unique state of Florida, average Black voter turnout in 2016 was 6.5 percentage points higher, and average Latinx voter turnout 4 percentage points higher, in states with same-day registration than in states without it.

At a moment when some states are working to roll back voting rights, evidence shows that same-day registration can help remove racialized obstacles to voting in our political system and advance a more inclusive democracy. Congress has a momentous opportunity to achieve this end via the For the People Act. As a bedrock piece of any robust and racially equitable democracy reform package, same-day registration should remain a core part of federal voting rights reform.

Laura Williamson is a senior policy analyst at Demos, a think tank focused on racial equity.

Jesse Rhodes is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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