Voter Registration and Voter Turnout 



In 2020, about two-thirds (66%) of the voting-eligible population turned out for the presidential election. While the 2020 presidential election saw the highest voter turnout rate since 1900, still one-third of the population did not vote. If that one-third of the population voted, the election results could have easily changed. Not to mention, this voter turnout was for the presidential election alone, meaning select state and local election voter turnout rates could have been much lower. Every day, the president, not to mention legislators and judges, makes dozens of decisions spanning a wide range of issues, including national security, health, education, business, lifestyle, and more, that personally affect individuals’ lives. These elections determine which leader receives these powers and responsibilities, and citizens can participate in electing the most representative leader by voting. When citizens do not exercise their right to vote, they increase the chance that other voters will elect an official that does not truly represent the public’s interest.

There may be many reasons the voter turnout rate is very low each year, including voter disenfranchisement, voting inconvenience, or voter registration. This article will focus mainly on voter registration as an inhibitor to voter turnout. Voter registration is the process of signing up to vote. “Voter registration is intended to ensure that everyone entitled to vote can do so, to prevent ineligible persons from voting, and to guard against multiple voting by the same individual.” In the 2020 presidential election, the government census showed 72.7 percent of U.S. citizens were registered to vote. 66.8 percent of U.S. citizens actually voted which shows a smaller gap between registered voters and actual voters. The gap between the percentage of citizens registered to vote and those that actually voted is 5.9 percent, or an 8.1 percent decrease. This gap may indicate that once voters are registered, they are more likely to vote. Extrapolating the data, if 100 percent of eligible U.S. citizens were registered, perhaps 94.1 percent will vote if the correlation is a flat decrease. About 91.9 percent of registered voters will vote if the correlation is a scaled percentage decrease. Either way, increasing the voter registration rate shows promise to increase the overall voter turnout.

Some barriers to voter registration could be complicated processes, voter roll purges, and privacy interests. Different states have different processes and deadlines to register with varying degrees of difficulty. Some states have online voter registration while other states have in-person or mail in registration processes. With more complicated processes, the state’s interest is against fraud prevention. To prevent voter fraud, states could increase the barriers to voter registration to ensure their voter list is accurate. A voter roll purge is when a state deletes voters from registration lists because the voter has died, moved, or become ineligible to vote. Sometimes, states can make mistakes when purging voters from their registration list because of bad data or confusion, making registered voters unable to vote. Finally, states vary on the amount of voter information to reveal, but some state public record laws publicize voter information which deters many citizens from registering to vote. In some cases, citizens’ interest in privacy may outweigh their interest in voting.

Some interesting constitutional issues arise from changes in voter registration policies, including federalism concerns, freedom from voting, and privacy interests. Each state has its own sovereignty, separate from the federal U.S. government. This principle has been well established in the Supremacy Clause, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the Tenth Amendment, and years of developed jurisprudence. These federalism concerns make legislating a nationwide voter registration policy very difficult because the federal government may not have the authority to dictate how a state manages its voters. The National Voter Registration Act shows some spillover from the federal government, but not enough to implement a separate, uniform policy. Another issue is a citizen’s freedom from voting. If a citizen does not want to exercise his or her civic right, that is arguably their prerogative under the First Amendment freedoms of expression. Finally, the due process clause of the 14th Amendment could implicate privacy interests for citizens. “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” One could argue posting voter registration information deprives a citizen of their property of information. Automatic voter registration could be argued to deprive someone of their liberty not to register to vote or have their information posted to the public.

Current efforts to improve voter registration rates are varied and mainly consist of 4 approaches: election day registration, online registration, pre-registration of youth, and automatic voter registration. North Dakota is unique in its own approach and does not require voter registration at all. On a national level, a National Task Force on Civic Engagement and Voter Participation has been created to “investigate and address low voter turnout.” Another suggestion has been to create a cross-governmental bureaucracy for voter registration. Hopefully states will continue to monitor the success of these varying programs and consider adopting successful solutions into their voter registration policies. In the meantime, each citizen can help increase the voter turnout rate by registering and voting in the upcoming election.


Suggested Citation: Andrew Pei, Voter Registration and Voter Turnout, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (March 13, 2024),


Andrew Pei is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Industrial and Labor Relations. He’s active in his campus church, Emmaus Road, and loves playing squash.

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