America Decides 2020: Registering to Vote, Explained

Voting is a Vibe, voter registration
Kamala Golston updates her voter registration next to Quincy Bates and Sanjena Clay at the “Voting is a Vibe” Community Block Party on August 15, 2020, in West Palm Beach, FL. Photo credit: © Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 4 minutesProtecting Out Vote 2020

Election Day will be November 3, but there’s little agreement on anything else. In America Decides 2020, editors and reporters for WhoWhatWhy explore the critical issues concerning who can vote, how ballots will be cast, and how they will be counted — questions that could shape US democracy for years to come.

If you have been living in North Dakota for at least a month, you can vote without bothering to register.

North Dakota is the only state in the union that does not require voter registration. All that is needed to vote is a state-approved form of identification and at least 30 days of residence in North Dakota prior to Election Day.

The United States does not have a centralized election system, so each state governs their elections in a unique way. Some states prohibit individuals from registering if they lack the right type of identification or were convicted of a felony. With just 68 days until the presidential election, do you know whether you followed the right steps and are eligible to vote in your state?

Here’s what you need to know about registering to vote.

How Can I Register to Vote?

In most states, any American citizen who is at least 18 years old can register to vote. But beware — you may be ineligible to vote if you move out of state and do not contact the state you previously lived in to remove yourself from the voter roll. This is the case in Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, and New York.

Once you determine that you are eligible to vote in your state, there are several ways to register. The first is by submitting a voter registration application to your state’s Board of Elections. This can be done by fax, in person, or online; the deadline for registration varies by state. Some states allow voters to register at any public services office, such as those that provide SNAP and WIC benefits. Online voter registration is available in 39 states, but be careful about relying on this option if you have yet to register for this election — the District of Columbia recently ended online voter registration when it quietly deleted its Vote4DC mobile app.

Another way to register to vote is by visiting a government office that participates in automatic voter registration. Some states connect their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) systems to their voter files, so an eligible voter’s information is automatically transferred to that state’s board of elections. To date, 19 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration. New York could become the next state to do so in 2023 because the state legislature passed it as part of a package of government reforms in June. The bill is still waiting for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature to go into effect. 

Several states offer voters the opportunity to register on the same day they cast a ballot. More than 20 states and the District of Columbia offer this, and even more are considering it.

In most states, voters also have the opportunity to pre-register to vote. That means that a 16 or 17-year-old can register but would not actually be added to the voter rolls and become eligible to vote until they turn 18. This is especially helpful for first-time voters whose birthday may be after a state’s registration deadline but before an election.

Do I Need an ID to Register?

Voter ID laws have become a controversial topic because obtaining identification can be difficult for communities that do not have easy access to government offices that provide IDs. To date, 36 states have this requirement.

And, as mentioned previously, North Dakota is the only state that does not require voter registration. It does, however, mandate that voters bring a state-approved form of identification when they vote.

Voter Registration Could Tip the Scales in 2020

What Federal Laws Guide Voter Registration Requirements?

One of the reasons that a voter can register to vote when they apply for or renew their license at the DMV is because of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “motor voter” law. If an eligible voter wants to register, they must be given the opportunity to note on their license application or renewal form that they wish to register to vote. This is slightly different from automatic voter registration, in which states automatically register a voter once they visit the DMV.

Another important law that governs registering to vote is the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The law was intended to boost the number of registered voters across the country and end many of the discriminatory laws that prevented Black voters from casting a ballot. The VRA officially outlawed things like poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.

There are also several constitutional amendments that have played a significant role in determining who is eligible to register to vote. The 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote in 1870 (although this right was not fully protected until the VRA), and the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. In 1964, the 24th Amendment prohibited poll taxes, which were one of the barriers that communities of color most often had to overcome, and the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971.

Do I Have to Pick a Party Affiliation When I Register?

No, you are not required to choose a party affiliation to register and cast a ballot during a general election.

The main reason that voters select a party when they register to vote is because many states run closed primaries in which only members of a specific political party are allowed to vote. Other states run semi-closed primaries, which allow unaffiliated voters to participate in a party’s primary election.

Registering to vote can be a fairly straightforward process; however, not every state follows the same rules. If you are unsure that you are registered or if you will be eligible to vote for the first time this year, click here to find more information about the voting laws in your state.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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