The excitement and competitive races in the 2016 primary election season is yielding high voter turnout in many states. In one state—Illinois—there was another factor increasing participation: same day voter registration (SDR).
From absentee and early voting to online registration, reforms in Illinois have modernized elections and improved voter access. Since 2005, SDR, also known as “grace period registration,” allowed Illinois voters to register and vote after the regular deadline, during the early voting period. This was an important step, but it didn’t help the thousands who inevitably went to the polls on Election Day only to then discover registration problems. A campaign for registration through Election Day, or “election day registration” won a limited pilot in 2014 and was permanently adopted in early 2015.
While many factors contribute to voter interest and turnout, it is informative to look at same day registration trends. Take the city of Chicago, for example*:
Many factors, including overall voter interest and turnout, influence election figures like SDR usage. However, the increase SDR remains significant when compared to turnout. This year, an estimated 30,000 Chicagoans—about four percent of voters— used SDR on Election Day. Surely, one contributing factor was the new rule that jurisdictions over 100,000 must offer registration in the polling place. So, voters could now fix registration problems right in their precinct instead of traveling to another site. What’s that they say? Location. Location. Location.
“Given that this was our first time offering this service at 2,069 precincts, we were extremely pleased with the overall successful launch between our training, documentation, our Election Day judges, and our voters being able to use Election Day Registration,” James P. Allen, communications director of Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners told Project Vote. “EDR increased access to the franchise and participation, and we believe it greatly reduced the number of provisional ballots we might have had without it.”
Indeed, statewide in 2014, about 18,000 people voted at designated registration sites on Election Day. Statewide numbers are not yet released for the first primary with registration in most polling places. But on top of the registrations reported in Chicago, over 20,000 Election Day registrations were reported in suburban Cook County, which surrounds Chicago, and over 10,000 in three nearby counties alone. A county with a medium-sized university reported one campus location with at least 1,530 Election Day registrations, where only 18 people voted in 2012.
“This day in age, there is no reason for a misunderstanding or a mistake to cost someone their vote.”
Some claimed registration on Election Day would be unnecessary, given registration during early voting. However, many of us who had served as Illinois poll monitors suspected otherwise. Often, voters were previously registered, but moved and thought their registrations were updated when they visited the DMV (as they should have been). Brand new voters were sometimes unaware of registration rules. Occasionally, even a minor data entry or processing error meant a registration couldn’t be found in a poll book. This day in age, there is no reason for a misunderstanding or a mistake to cost someone their vote.
Of course, there was some resistance to (and growing pains with) any new procedure. Some election officials expressed concerns about cost. However, before SDR on Election Day, voters with registration problems cast provisional ballots, which require additional time and resources to process, both in the polling place and after the election. It’s inefficient to spend the time filling out provisional paperwork and processing ballots doomed for rejection, especially when they were cast by otherwise eligible voters. There are also concerns that SDR can lead to longer lines, depending on how it is administered. This underscores the need for careful planning, voter education, and sufficient resources to support local election officials carrying out reforms. And we can look to other states as examples. Wisconsin, for instance, has successfully implemented SDR in the polling place for decades.
“The challenge for November is to be able to use these numbers, as well as data from other jurisdictions, like Milwaukee, where election day registration has been in place for three decades, to identify where we are likely to see the most activity,” said Allen. “We want to be sure to dedicate the right amount of resources to the sites with concentrations of younger voters and areas with greater percentages of rental units, where there are more likely to be voters who have relocated since the last time they participated.”
*The 2016 figures are approximate and not final as of April 6, 2016.