Voter registration practices also limited the pool of voters. Over American history, requirements for voter registration have included residency, property or income, gender and race or ethnicity. The exact set of requirements varied by location, with different political parties trying to disqualify the constituents of their opponents from the right to vote. The imposition of voter registration requirements, and the other election reforms enacted at the beginning of the 20th Century, had dramatic effects on voter participation. Hansen (2001) reports that turnout declined in the South from 64.2% in 1888 to 29.0% in 1904. Outside the South, turnout fell from 86.2% in 1888 to 67.7% in 1912. Clearly the imposition of voter registration requirements imposed an important new hurdle on voter participation in the United States.
The hurdle of voter registration stands higher for certain groups of voters. The seminal work by Rosenstone and Wolfinger (1980), using the 1972 Current Population Survey’s Voter Supplement (CPS-VS), demonstrated that voter registration practices --- in particular practices like the extent to which election offices were open in evenings and during weekends, absentee voting, and the length of the pre-election closing period, all had some effect on voter turnout because they made it more difficult and costly for voters to participate. But the registration closing deadline had by far the greatest impact on turnout in the Rosenstone and Wolfinger study; 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. And 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.
In this paper we review the literature on the linkage between voter registration and turnout, with a particular emphasis on how election day registration works and how it impacts voter turnout. We then present our analysis of the 2000 CPS-VS, in which we estimate the potential national impact of election day registration in the United States. Using a novel counterfactual analysis, we examine not only the question about how much voter registration and turnout would increase if every state used election day registration, we also estimate the impact of this change on the composition of the American electorate. We find that the very groups who would be expected to find election day registration an easier process, those who are younger, more residentially mobile, lower on the socioeconomic ladder, nonwhite, and newly naturalized citizens of the US, would benefit in important ways from election day registration.
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