Moving Forward: Increasing Turnout as the Progressive Response to Voter Suppression


With headlines in the run-up to the election dominated by political forecasts and endless polling, it was easy to miss the October decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - one that was a mixed bag for historically disenfranchised populations.  Though the 9th Circuit struck down Arizona’s draconian law that required proof of citizenship in order to register to vote - proof that a disproportionate number of poor, elderly, and minority voters do not readily possess - the Court also upheld the state’s burdensome photo ID requirements at the polls.  This latest blow to participation in the electoral process follows on the heels of a voter ID ballot measure that was resoundingly approved by voters in Oklahoma on Election Day, as well as a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice in August to green light Georgia’s controversial voter verification system.  As newly-elected Republican officials like incoming Secretaries of State Kris Kobach (Kansas) and Matt Schultz (Iowa) prepare to follow through on their promises to enact photo ID requirements and the Texas legislature steels itself for debate on voter ID, it is more important than ever to push progressive election reforms that will boost turnout to counterbalance the effects of such harmful legislation. 

Progressive States Network advocates for the following three reforms, which have helped states like North Carolina, Missouri, and Florida ensure turnout among historically disenfranchised groups:

  • Same day registration (SDR): SDR allows eligible voters to register to vote and cast a ballot in a single act, after the close of the official voter registration.  According to Demos, states with SDR consistently post turnout rates that are 10 to 12 percentage points higher than states without SDR.  It is a boon for young and low-income voters who tend to move frequently and find it more difficult to keep their voter registration current.  
  • National Voter Rights Act (NVRA) compliance at public assistance agencies: In 2008, Demos reports that only 65.3% of low-income citizens were registered to vote, compared to 84.6% of voters in households making $100,000 or more.  There was a similar 15% disparity in voter turnout between the two groups.  However, the political process is opened up to millions of low-income Americans when state public assistance agencies provide voter registration services to applicants in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.  
  • Youth preregistration: According to FairVote, voter registration among youth is significantly lower than for other age groups, but studies show that voting is actually habit-forming.  Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote while incorporating a civic engagement component into school curricula is a model system that has been implemented in North Carolina.

As conservatives increasingly try to frame photo ID legislation as a precaution needed to prevent “the illegal registration of alien voters,” progressives need to remind the public of the real disenfranchising consequences of such tactics that are solutions in search of problems that hardly exist. Expanding participation among low-income, minority and youth voters not only mitigates the effects of photo ID legislation, but it can also serve to gradually transform the political debate: the progressive issues these voters traditionally care about will receive more and more attention as their political participation increases. Click here to read more about Progressive States Network's work on this and other election reform policies.

Full Resources

Demos, Voters Win with Same Day Registration
Demos, Fulfilling the Promise: Expanding Voter Registration of Low-Income Citizens Under the National Voter Registration Act
FairVote, North Carolina Registration and Education Project
Topeka Capitol-Journal, Kobach to Jump on Mandate
Des Moines Register, Voting ID plan a key, Matt Schultz says
Abilene Reporter-News, State Sen. Fraser files bill requiring photo ID to vote
Progressive States Network - Clean and Fair Elections: Policy Options for 2011