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Not all election reforms promote equality

Wealthy Americans are 65 percent more likely to vote than those with low incomes. What can be done to make voting more equal?

While most news media have focused on recent efforts in many states to impose new restrictions on voting, for the past 30 years, most states have actually worked to encourage voting. Proponents of reforms like early voting, motor-voter programs, and Election Day registration often say they seek to boost voter turnout and to make elections more equal. But do these reforms work?

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To answer this question, Melanie Springer (a political scientist at the University of California—Santa Cruz) and I looked at patterns of voting before and after each change in state rules about registration and voting.

Most importantly, we discovered that three different types of election reforms had contrasting effects on inequality.

Registration reforms, like motor-voter programs that let people register at their Department of Moter Vehicles, focus on making voter registration easier. Our research found that motor-voter laws led to a smaller income gap in voting. Online voter registration, a new and increasingly popular option that had too short of a track record to be part of our research, may well have a similar impact.

Eliminating the two-stage process that requires people first to register and then weeks later to go to the polls to vote makes an even bigger difference. In 1951, North Dakota completely eliminated registration. No other state has gone that far, but twelve states have adopted Election Day registration, which lets citizens register at the polls on Election Day. Not surprisingly, we found greater equality in voting following the enactment of this reform.

Convenience measures to make voting easier for citizens who are already registered are the third type of reform. Early voting, in-person voting in the days or weeks prior to Election Day is the most common and popular convenience reform. No states had adopted early voting in 1978, while 32 states offer it today. Nevertheless, our research documents that early voting and other convenience reforms mostly help citizens who are already registered to vote. Because low-income citizens are less likely to be registered, they do not benefit very much. Income vote bias actually increased after states adopted convenience reforms.

Anyone hoping to make US elections more equal should take note. On the cautionary side, today’s most popular electoral reforms focus on making voting very convenient. But doing only this can increase the gap in participation between rich and poor — especially in states where voter registration is very unequal and nothing is done to make registration easier for everyone.

Yet our findings also show that Election Day registration can greatly reduce inequalities in voter participation. Replacing two separate steps with one trip to the voting place makes a real difference for low-income citizens. Election Day registration is the reform that has demonstrated the greatest potential to make American electoral democracy more equal.

To date, only a dozen states have adopted Election Day registration. However, there is increasing attention to this promising reform. Since 2011, Election Day Registration has been passed into law in California, Colorado, and Connecticut. Other states, including Delaware, Maryland, and Massachusetts, are seriously considering the issue. This is a promising development since Election Day registration beckons as an untapped tool for Americans who want full and equal voter participation.

Elizabeth Rigby is an assistant professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.
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