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Online Voter Registration Reaches Some Citizens, but Won’t Close the Electoral Gap

Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog.

Access to voter registration continues to be an issue in the U.S. where only 71 percent of the voting eligible population is registered to vote. With young, low income, and minority citizens lagging behind in voter registration and participation, this fraction of registered voters only represents a skewed picture of the American people.

In an effort to make voter registration more accessible, several states have joined Arizona and Washington this year by passing laws to provide certain citizens the convenience of registering to vote with the click of a mouse. Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Oregon, and Utah are among the states that recently enacted such laws while Kansas has just made voter registration accessible online to eligible citizens in the state, according to the Associated Press this week. However, a new memo by Project Vote consultants Jody Herman and Doug Hess finds that, while online voter registration is a “welcome new convenience,” its impact will most likely be limited in reducing the tremendous demographic disparities that currently exist in the electorate.

Using Nielsan and Census data, the report examines the limitations – and benefits – of online voter registration by describing the U.S. households that do not have internet access and comparing the findings to voter registration rates in those households based on race/ethnicity, age, educational attainment, and income.

“In most cases, the demographic groups that are already less likely to be registered are also the least likely to have internet access in the home,” Herman wrote. Among these groups are low income citizens, those without high school degrees, and Latinos, rendering online voter registration less effective for the very people who need access to the electoral process most. According to the memo:


*    Low income households are not only less likely to have internet access (41%), they are also least likely to be registered to vote, compared to other income brackets (65%).

*    Educational attainment appears to have an affect on access to both voter registration and internet. Just 36% percent of those without high school diploma have internet access – 41 percentage points lower than the national average. Similarly, this group registers to vote at a rate that is 21 percentage points lower than the national average (50%).

*    Black and Latino households are less likely to have access to the internet, with only 63% of households in each group. However, Latinos are disproportionately underrepresented in the electorate, registering at 12 percentage points lower than the national average.

“An additional problem is that online voter registration systems that require an online registrant to have an existing signature in a state database–such as in a driver's license database and/or state voter registration database-will further limit the accessibility of an online voter registration system to disadvantaged groups,” according to the report. (A 2007 study on voter ID accessibility in Indiana exemplifies this issue, as voters with only high school education, as well as low-income and minority citizens, were found to be less likely to posses identification required, in this case, to vote.)  

While online registration seems to disproportionately reach mostly those who are already overrepresented in the electorate, it may open doors for one group that is notoriously plagued with voter access and participation issues: Youth. Citizens ages 18 to 34 register to vote at a rate of 10 percentage points behind the electorate as a whole. However, young people are most likely to have internet access, with 88 percent of younger households connected to the Web. This may prove beneficial in incorporating America's future decision makers in the electorate.

Project Vote

Project Vote