The Policy Shop: Election-Day Voter Registration

Last November, two-thirds of Maryland’s voting eligible population showed up at the polls to voice their opinion. Voting is perhaps the single most celebrated component of American democracy, and it’s certainly something we hold in reverence here in the Free State.

That two-thirds number is enough to make us the ninth highest turnout in the nation in last fall’s election, but Maryland can do much better.

The amazing thing about Maryland’s voter turnout ranking is that we did it without Election-Day Voter Registration (EDR), a policy that allows citizens to register to vote at the same time they cast their ballots. EDR is incredibly effective at boosting voter turnout, since many voters are either too busy or aren’t focused on voting until Election Day. In states with some form of EDR during the 2012 election, the average voter turnout was 66.2 percent, or eight percentage points higher than the national turnout rate. Of the six top voter turnout states, five of them had EDR in place. With EDR, Maryland could see an increase of as much as 4.3 percent in voter turnout, bringing it to over 70 percent participation.

So if EDR is such a boost to voter participation, why is it only used by twelve states and the District of Columbia? One major argument of opposition is voter fraud. But as we’ve seen with the ongoing Voter ID debate, voter fraud is incredibly rare, including in states with EDR

The other primary argument against EDR is that it will create administrative burdens and costs; however, that hasn’t been the case.  After it was implemented in Iowa, the vast majority of county election offices reported no increase in staffing, with the only real increase in cost coming from minimal upticks in printing and paper. Critics often forget that one of the costliest Election Day resources is the provisional ballot – a need that is actually reduced through EDR, in turn eliminating a lot of administrative burden in most cases.

Last legislative session, Maryland passed a version of EDR that allows voters to register and vote on the same day, but only during early voting. The policy stopped short of full EDR because of administrative complications and the need for a constitutional amendment. But if we admit that EDR creates positive benefits, and other states have figured out how to manage voter registration on Election Day, why should we settle for a less impactful policy?

"The Policy Shop" is a Mizeur Campaign blog series examining policy ideas from around the country that could address challenges facing Maryland.