I won't be voting in today's elections. The reason: I made a mistake. But so did my state, and thirty-nine others.
I can't vote today, because I didn't register in time. New York State's voter registration forms had to be postmarked or filled out in person by October 8, and I missed that deadline. Obviously, this was really stupid of me. I have lived in New York since September 2009, and have had ample time to register. Also, my job involves reading and writing about the news — I was reminded daily that an election was coming up and I needed to register, and still I forgot. I'm definitely at fault here, and I feel pretty bad.
However! Requiring voter registration nearly a month before an election is also bad for democracy. Nine states — including Iowa, where I lived and voted before I moved to New York — allow election-day voter registration in some form or another, and those states have significantly higher voter turnout. According to a study by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, "residents of states with 30-day closing deadlines were anywhere from 3 to 9 percent less likely to turnout than residents of states with election day voter registration." Public policy research group Demos.org reports an even greater effect, "States with EDR have historically boasted turnout rates 10 to 12 percentage points higher than states that do not offer Election Day Registration." The Caltech/MIT researchers say registration deadlines have a greater effect on turnout than any other voting-practices policy, be it polling place hours or absentee ballot regulations.
Also, requiring early registration disproportionately affects certain social groups. According to the Caltech/MIT study, "the impact of the registration closing deadline was greater for voters with lower levels of educational attainment, and those who were generally less able to navigate the voter registration process in their state." Says Demos,
Young Americans move frequently — for school, for jobs, for family — making it harder for them to keep their voter registrations current. Although voter turnout among 18-29 year olds has steadily increased over the last four presidential elections, it still lagged behind the overall turnout rate. [...] Research indicates that allowing young people to register to vote on Election Day could increase youth turnout in presidential elections by as much as 14 percentage points.
Young people aren't the only ones who move a lot — so do low-income Americans. According to Demos, "Census data show that over 35 million people in America moved between 2007 and 2008. Approximately 45 percent of those moving during this period had incomes of less than $25,000." By requiring early registration, New York and thirty-nine other states (North Dakota doesn't require registration at all), are disadvantaging would-be voters who are young, who are poor, who move a lot, or who have trouble registering due to lack of information, lack of Internet access, limited English proficiency, working long hours, disability, or a host of other reasons. Since a lot of these voters are already disadvantaged anyway, early voter registration deadlines actually perpetuate social inequality by denying underprivileged groups a voice in the electoral process.
None of this is an excuse for my forgetfulness. This is the first general election I've missed since I turned eighteen, and I'm mad at myself. But I'm also mad at New York State. And if they ever put election-day registration on the ballot here, I'll vote enthusiastically for it — after I register, of course.
Voters Win With Election Day Registration [Demos.org]
Election Day Voter Registration In The United States: How One-Step Voting Can Change The Composition Of The American Electorate [Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project]