I. Voter registration disparity and the effects of COVID-19 on voter registration
The 2020 presidential election revealed a remarkable 168,310,000 registered voters. In comparison, the 2016 presidential election boasted 157,600,000 registered voters. The rise in registered voters is a promising trend because voter registration is directly tied to votes cast and an active electorate reflects fair governance. The increased registered voters in 2020 are even more impressive given the challenges that states faced with adapting to registering voters throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while some states excelled in registering their citizens to vote, other states, like Wisconsin and Colorado, came short in raising voter registration rates.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic coaxed California and six other states to adopt “all-mail voting” for 2020 election voters. California’s voter registration process allows citizens to register to vote online or mail. In a state where vote-by-mail is utilized, California’s voter registration and turnout rates are promising. In Orange County, California, lower-income and diverse voters saw a voter increase of 42% which comprised the majority of the rise in total California voters. Voter outreach groups credit the state’s decision to mail voter forms to registered voters for the increase in turnout. However, despite the 14% increase in registered voters, which represents about 2.6 million Californians; low-income and minority voters had a slightly lower voter registration rate. High-poverty neighborhood voter registration increased by 14%, which is 2% lower than the voter registration increase in low-poverty areas. California presents a framework for improving voter registration which other states should adopt but reform is required to increase voter turnout in high-poverty areas.
Outside of California, the disparity in voter registration rates between people of color and White Americans is prevalent. Despite the jumps in voting rates for the 2020 election, minority voting rates are still behind White Americans. White Americans remain the majority racial or ethnic eligible voting population in the United States. However, White American voter rates continue to fall, including a 15% decrease in California. Across the United States, Hispanic eligible voters lead the non-White voter class and have the sharpest increase in eligible voters from 2000-2018. African-American eligible voters also worked towards a small increase, especially in states like Georgia and Delaware. Similarly, Asian-American eligible voters also saw an across-the-board increase with growth in places like California and New Jersey. Despite the increases in non-White voters, states have to continue to improve voter registration procedures to close the gap between racial and ethnic voting populations.
While some states like California improved their voter registration process during COVID-19, voter registration rates in many states have suffered. In the face of COVID-19, voter registration rates have fallen in six states, including Texas. The loss of in-person voter advocacy efforts and the closure of many states’ voter registration offices contribute to this phenomenon. 17 out of 21 states reported lower new registration rates when compared to the 2016 presidential election. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 election polls indicated and voter rates showed high levels of voter registration. However, because in-person registration offices were shut down for public safety reasons, possible voter registrants had to find other means to register. In Florida, only 21,031 new voters registered in April 2020, which represents about a 60% drop when compared to the 52,508 newly registered voters in April 2016. As such, COVID-19 revealed that states’ inadequate voting procedures could benefit from legislative reform to implement registration changes that would mirror in-person registration.
II. Existing Legislation
Existing legislation provides the framework for states to improve in-person voting through automatic registration and the use of public offices to serve as voter registration places. The National Voting Registration Act of 1993 (“NVRA”) was enacted to standardize voting registration for federal elections. NVRA applies to forty-four states and the District of Columbia. NVRA’s provision requires that states adopt standards that allow better voter registration for federal elections. NVRA expanded voter registration through Sections 5, 6, and 7. Section 5 requires that states utilize their department of motor vehicles office for voting registration. In Section 6, states are required to have mail-in voting applications. Section 7 asks states to utilize their local government offices to expand voter registration opportunities. NVRA requires states to become more involved in the voter registration process and has helped improve voting rates. In a report to the 113th Congress, NVRA concludes that mail applicants were 17.7% of the 23,843,496 new applicants while in-person applicants were 14.3% in 2012. Although the data is from 2012, NVRA’s work to increase ways to induce voter registration shows that states have room for improvement. Given that mailed registration was significant in 2012, voter applicants in 2020 could better avail themselves of mail-in registration when public voter offices were closed. As such, while NVRA’s standards have improved accessibility for voters, more work is required to modernize the voter registration process.
Fortunately, legislative developments continue to push for streamlined voter registration. The For the People Act (“FPA”) is a bill to modernize the voter registration process and awaits Congressional approval. The bill aims to improve voter registration by allowing previous felons to vote, automatically registering voters, and establishes same-day and online voter registration amongst other voter reform initiatives. However, legislative developments like FPA still require time for passage and implementation. Therefore, a proposed policy to improve voter registration for minorities and lower-income communities should mirror the FPA and expand existing legislation.
III. Policy Solutions
A. Expanding Existing Legislation
One possible remedy is to expand section 7 of the NVRA to empower voter registration agencies to expand to all states’ same-day voter registration. Currently, twenty states and the District of Columbia permit same-day voter registration. Of the 117,176,500 eligible voters in the 2018 midterm elections, about 3,800,000 claimed to have issues with registering. Further, an estimated 4.8 million voters faced voter registration issues during the 2016 presidential election and did not vote. Implementing same-day voting registration would enable those who face issues with registration to fix them at voting registration offices. Further, non-voters would have another option to vote.
Another solution would expand FPA to include voice call phone registration. The federal government provides a subsidized phone carrier and plan for eligible individuals. Applicants can receive Android smartphones which have expanded abilities to use the internet and allows the government to install applications that could verify the user. Because the government provides phones to eligible individuals, then the ability to register to vote would reach more people. Further, people who are eligible for a government-subsidized phone service need to meet low-income requirements. Low-income households typically have lower voter registration rates than richer households. However, critics could point out that phone voter registration is more susceptible to social engineering than online registration because a nefarious actor could claim another’s identity and get a hold of an unregistered person’s social security number. Given that voter registration requires largely public information, phone voter registration is very susceptible to fraudulent voter registration. To combat this, governments could employ a two-step verification process that would allow a person to register via phone and then have a mailed voter registration form. Although this solution poses an even greater challenge than just mailed or online applications, phone registration may benefit disabled registrants.
B. Incorporate private companies into the voter registration process
Another solution would require state voting agencies to work with a private organization. The California State government utilizes “ID.me” an identity verification company to help unemployed workers register for unemployment benefits online. ID.me also works with the Social Security agency, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and the Internal Revenue Service. Because California and the federal government already use ID.me’s services to verify the identity of applicants, using it to improve voter registration accessibility is a possible venture.
ID.me requests for a driver’s license or state or government-issued identification and then requires a live photo scan of the applicant. ID.me then verifies the applicant and transmits the verification to California’s unemployment office. Because California already works with ID.me, California can work with ID.me to provide services like online voting, same-day voter registration, and phone registration.
A criticism of the proposed solution to online, in-app voter registration is issues of data privacy. States that use ID.me, like California and Florida, allow ID.me to handle constituent data. Although ID.me protects its data by employing a security team among other precautionary measures; a partnership with state governments would make ID.me subject to scrutiny with how it handles personal information. In addition, ID.me requires a smartphone to conduct its real-time facial scan and low-income voters may not have access to smartphones or other devices to verify their identity.
About the Author: Antonio Ellorin is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, and has a political science degree from the University of Southern California.
Suggested Citation: Antonio Ellorin, Addressing Voter Registration Disparity Between States: How States Can Induce Voter Registration by Following California’s Framework, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (October 14, 2021), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/?p=3748.