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Sneak Peek: New Data on What Americans Think About Voter Registration

By Natalie Adona / 2017 September 22nd

In 2016, the Democracy Fund participated in the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) in partnership with Reed College. (1) Through this partnership, we sought to gain a better understanding of public opinion about election administration and voting, use the data to inform Democracy Fund’s strategic priorities, and add to the growing body of knowledge in election policy. The Reed/Democracy Fund module, which was administered pre- and post-election, includes several questions, grouped in the following categories:

  • Voting behavior and the voter experience;
  • Election administration;
  • Election integrity, fairness, and trust; and
  • Policy preferences.

As National Voter Registration Day approaches, I’d like to offer a preview and some initial thoughts about our findings—specifically, those covering certain aspects of the registration process. As I explain below, our findings suggest that voters need ongoing education to understand key aspects of the voter registration process. The data also suggest that election officials are well positioned to provide clear, easy-to-understand information about registration and to continue educating the public about the availability and benefits of online voter registration.

Public perceptions of the voter registration process

States have a long history of requiring registration before a person may vote. However, voters and potential voters might not be completely familiar with, and may even be confused by, certain aspects of the process. Missing the state registration deadline or experiencing a significant life change like a marriage or a move without updating registration can lead to a person being unable to cast a valid ballot.

In our survey, we asked participants about some key aspects of the registration process so that we could better understand and then address potential gaps in voter education. Because it’s available in 35 states and DC, and is a relatively recent change in election policy, we included questions about respondent’s knowledge and use of online voter registration (OVR). (2) We also wanted to know whether people understand when to update their registration and how respondents find out about voter registration deadlines.

1) Knowledge and use of OVR

When asked about whether their states offer OVR, nearly 50 percent of respondents did not know. Over 17 percent answered incorrectly; of those respondents, 55 percent believed that their state did not offer OVR, and 45 percent believed that the state does offer it. (3) Of the third of respondents who provided the correct answer, over 60 percent of them had not registered or updated their registration using the state’s online system.

At first glance, these data may be discouraging and reflect the need for stronger efforts to educate voters about the availability and benefits of OVR. There are, however, some caveats to these results that prompt the need for further study:

  • Many respondents were already registered. Just over 89 percent of CCES respondents answered that they were registered to vote. Though questions of this type are sometimes susceptible to social desirability bias, we assume that CCES respondents answered truthfully, and might not have had the need to use OVR at the time they completed the survey. So, while we encourage states to offer OVR to their citizens, some groups of voters may not use it for several years.
  • Some respondents prefer the paper form. While over 50 percent of respondents answered that they would prefer to use OVR, about 35 percent indicated that they preferred a paper form. It is unclear whether those answers reflect a lack of trust in using OVR or were motivated by some other reasons. However, these data make it clear that states should not completely phase out paper—at least, not while a significant number of people prefer paper or lack access to the Internet.
  • Some respondents may have been registered at DMV. Even though the CCES does not ask about the manner in which respondents registered to vote, we assume that some may have registered through their state department of motor vehicles (DMV). Data from the United States Election Assistance Commission shows that, between 2014 and 2016, election officials received 33 percent of registrations from DMVs, which is the largest single source of registration applications compared to in person (12 percent), by mail (17 percent), online (17 percent), and other sources (15 percent).

2) Updating registration upon moving

Most respondents knew that they need to register or update their registration after a move; however, a significant percentage of people did not. To challenge our respondents on the basics of registration, we presented them with various scenarios that may trigger registration updates, e.g., moves across town, other counties, or other states.

There were varied responses to our scenarios about moving. While most of our respondents understood that a move to another state requires them to change registration, 41 percent of respondents either did not know or said “no” when asked if an across-town move triggers this need. Nearly 25 percent of respondents answered incorrectly when asked about an out-of-county move, and about one fifth erroneously thought that they did not need to re-register after an out-of-state move.

We do not yet know what role the DMV might play in shaping the public’s understanding of the registration process, and whether DMV interactions may explain the difference in these responses, if at all. Given the large percentage of people who register through DMVs, we look forward to using these CCES findings as a jumping off point for future analysis.

3) Finding voter registration deadlines

When asked about the top three resources that they turn to for voter registration deadlines, about 70 percent of our respondents said that they rely on their county election website; about as many rely on their state’s election website for the same information. Over 60 percent of respondents also use search engines like Google to look up voter registration deadlines—and very likely receive reliable information from the states, thanks to our friends at the Voting Information Project.

In contrast, relatively fewer respondents get information from other sources such as campaigns or friends and family. There may be a chance that some respondents chose these government websites as socially acceptable alternatives to admitting that they rely on other sources for registration information. But if it’s true that voters prefer the county or state website, then election officials have significant influence over how people understand voter registration requirements.

The need for voter education

From this snapshot of our findings, the need for information about key aspects of voter registration is clear. The good news is, state and local election administrators are well positioned to educate voters about these aspects of the voter registration process and to communicate the availability and benefits of OVR. As the data indicates, voters pay attention to information from state and local election officials and would benefit from existing voter outreach and educational services.

However, simply building a website and expecting people to use it is not enough—ongoing voter education is needed to keep voters up to speed with voter registration processes and deadlines. Fortunately, election officials are not alone in this effort. Events like National Voter Registration Day are a wonderful opportunity for election officials, advocates, and community-based groups to engage with voters and potential voters, offer up-to-date information about the registration process, and provide the tools and resources that voters need to complete their registration forms and keep them updated—and well in advance of the next election.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that showcase our findings from the CCES. We look forward to sharing more in the coming months.


Sources

(1) The Cooperative Congressional Election Study is a survey administered by YouGov that includes Common Content and invites participation from up to 50 academic teams The Reed/Democracy Fund pre-election survey was administered to 1000 respondents, and our post-election survey includes answers from 845 respondents. More information about the CCES and its methodology is available at the Harvard Dataverse, found at: https://cces.gov.harvard.edu/data.

Paul Gronke is the Principal Investigator of the Reed College/Democracy Fund team module. Natalie Adona is the Research Associate for the Democracy Fund’s Elections Program and manages the roll out of these findings, with support from Jack Santucci, the Elections Research Fellow. Please direct any questions about these survey findings to nadona@democracyfund.org.

(2) Though 38 states and DC have authorized online voter registration, 3 states have yet to implement it. See “Online Voter Registration,” from the National Conference of State Legislatures, updated September 11, 2017. Available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx.

(3) Data on states with online voter registration as of the 2016 primary elections come from the National Conference of State Legislatures (see source #2).

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