In 49 states, an eligible citizen must be registered to vote. North Dakota does not require voter registration ahead of an election—eligible citizens can simply appear at the polls with required identification and be permitted to vote.
In other states, citizens can register in a number of ways:
Some states also offer the following options:
Register at the Local Elections Office
Forms filled out at a local elections office are typically processed as soon as possible, so long as the voter registration deadline has not passed. State voter registration deadlines range from 30 days before an election to the day of the election. Contact NCSL’s elections team for a chart outlining voter registration deadlines.
Staff in the local elections office input the information into the statewide voter registration database and conduct any checks that are required by state law. These may include verifying the applicant’s information against the motor vehicle database and, depending on the state’s felon enfranchisement laws, the state's law enforcement records. Once the applicant is registered, the local office sends out a voter registration card or confirmation that the applicant is now a registered voter.
Register at the Department of Motor Vehicles
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, often known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires each state’s driver’s license application to serve as an application for voter registration as well. Registrations received from the state motor vehicle agencies (DMV) account for a significant portion of the total number of registrations in states – each year 30 to 35 percent of voter registration applications are submitted through the DMV to election officials. A recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that many states could improve the way that voter registrations are collected by the DMV and subsequently transmitted to election offices. As states seek to continually improve the accuracy of their voter registration lists, the issue of linking motor vehicle records to voter records is increasingly becoming a topic of interest in election administration and legislative circles. For more information, see NCSL’s webinar “Linking Driving Records to Voting Records.”
Automatic Voter Registration
Automatic voter registration takes the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) a step further by automatically registering individuals to vote at the DMV unless they "opt-out." Previously under the NVRA, voters could "opt-in" to register at the DMV, where an eligible voter chooses to fill out a voter registration application to be reviewed and processed before appearing on the voter rolls.
Proponents of automatic voter registration say that the policy will remove barries to registration by registering through a routine and necessary transaction. It will also lead to cleaner voter rolls by updating existing registrations with current addresses. It has the potential to lead to higher voter turnout, although evidence is not available to prove this yet. Opponents of automatic voter registration say that the government should not be responsible for registering individuals, and may even see automatic voter registration as an infringement upon the First Amendment right to free speech. For more information, see NCSL's wepage on Automatic Voter Registration.
Online Voter Registration
Online voter registration systems allow voters to input their information entirely online. Since the information does not have to be re-entered by staff from the local elections office, registrations received via online systems typically mean fewer data entry errors. Online voter registration can also help cut costs by reducing staff needed to input registration information into the statewide registration database. Most states check online registration information against data already in the motor vehicle database to ensure accuracy. Visit NCSL’s webpage on Online Voter Registration for more information.
Same Day Registration
In most states, citizens have to register to vote in advance of a deadline. Some states, however, permit voters to register up to and including Election Day. In these states a voter can show up at the polls on Election Day, register, and vote at the same time. Visit NCSL’s webpage on Same Day Registration for more information.
Some states allow teens to “pre-register” to vote, e.g. 16- or 17-year olds can register to vote, and then will be automatically added to the voter rolls upon turning 18. These teens can’t vote until they turn 18, but the process allows them to register earlier so that they are already set to go by the time they are of voting age. Visit NCSL’s webpage on Preregistration for Young Voters for more information.
Statewide Voter Registration Databases
The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 required states to establish statewide voter registration databases. Databases are either “top-down” (maintained by the state with information supplied by counties) or “bottom-up” (counties have their own lists and provide them to the state at regular intervals). Most states established their statewide registration databases in the early 2000s and many are now aging and may need upgrades or replacement.
Maintaining the Voter List
All states take steps to keep their voter registration rolls accurate and up-to-date. The goal of maintaining an accurate voter list is to prevent ineligible people from voting, prevent anyone from voting twice and, by reducing inaccuracies, speed up the voter check-in process at polling places. How states do this can vary, but most have processes in place for removing records of duplicate records, deceased voters, felons and people who have moved.
To identify potential inaccuracies or those that should be removed from the list, states compare data from federal agencies, state agencies, or other states. The time frame by which these checks occur varies by state and the type of check – some may occur monthly, while others may be just yearly. For more information, visit NCSL’s webpage on Voter List Accuracy.
- NCSL's webpages on:
- Articles in NCSL's elections newsletter, The Canvass:
- Pre-Election Day Voting—Just the FAQs, Ma'am
- Online Voter Registration Grows in 2014, April 2014
- Security Becomes Key Issue for Online Voter Registration, April 2014
- Pre-registration for Teens, September 2013, p. 4
- Election Day Registration: FAQs, May, 2013
- Voter List Maintenance, Why, How and When, July/August 2012
- The Cost of Inaccuracy: Voter Registration Examined, March 2012
- NCSL's webinars:
- NCSL's State Legislatures magazine article "No Lines Online" addresses the cost savings and security concerns of implementing online voter registration.
- NCSL's video Q&A with The Pew Charitable Trusts' David Becker on improving voter registration and maintaining voter lists.
- NCSL's video Q&A with MIT's Charles Stewart III on early voting and turnout
- Online Voter Registration: Trends in Development and Implementation, from The Pew Charitable Trusts, released in May 2015.
- Understanding Online Voter Registration, from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which reported in June 2013 on the 13 states that had online registration at that time.
- The Presidential Commission on Election Administration's report from January 2014.
- The Early Voting Information Center (EVIC) based at Reed College
- The U.S. Vote Foundation has state dates deadlines for requesting and returning absentee ballots, as well as state early voting periods
- Long Distance Voter, a non-profit with information on registering and voting by mail
For more information