How Hard Can It Be: Do Citizens Think It Is Difficult to Register to Vote?

Author(s): 
Morgan Llewellyn
Thad E. Hall
R. Michael Alvarez
Journal: 
Stanford Law & Policy Review
pp: 
Status: 
Published

Political equality is seen as an intrinsic normative principle for the adequate functioning of a democratic republic. However, it is well documented that in the United States there are many qualified citizens who do not vote, many who do not participate in the political process due to procedural barriers that make it difficult or impossible for them to register and vote. Despite this, there is debate in the research literature about whether additional procedural reforms that seek to make the voter registration process easier will lead to substantial increases in voter participation in elections in the United States. While we do not enter into that research debate, we examine a related question: what are the perceptions of the American public about how hard or easy it is to register to vote in their state? Our assumption is that future reforms that seek to make the voter registration process easier will need substantial public support, and thus it is important to understand public perceptions regarding the usability of the voter registration process.

Our research, based on a randomly-selected sample of American adults interviewed by telephone in January 2006, indicates that some think it is difficult to register in their state, as 10% of survey respondents stated that the voter registration process in their state was difficult. This implies that an estimated 21 million American adults believe that the voter registration process is difficult in their state. We see also that younger voters, those who are not registered to vote, and political independents are especially likely to believe that the voter registration process is difficult in their state. We focus on younger voters in our analysis reported below because they are one group that research has shown is affected by voter registration procedures. But as nearly 87% of the adults in our sample said that they thought the voter registration process was easy, we conclude that efforts to reform the registration process to make it easier for eligible citizens should be carefully targeted at the segments of the population who find the existing process the most difficult.

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