The tortured process of finally deciding the 2004 Presidential election underscored for many the importance of voter registration. The right to vote is guaranteed to virtually all Americans aged 18 and over, yet voter turnout is traditionally extremely low. Several states, however, are working to improve voter turnout by making it easier to register to vote.

The Motor Voter Law

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 was the first large-scale effort on the part of the federal government to make voter registration easier. Prior to the passage of this Act, often called the Motor Voter Law, many states required prospective voters to make a separate trip to a voter registration office.

Under the Motor Voter Law, all states are required to ease the voter registration process by permitting voters to register at DMVs, disability centers and schools, as well as via mail-in procedures. Most states require voters to register 30 days before an upcoming election, but several permit Election Day registration.

Who Is Ineligible?

In general, every adult aged 18 or above has a Constitutional right to cast a vote. Discrimination based on gender, race or any other class status is prohibited. Nonetheless, certain individuals are ineligible to vote. Excluded voters vary by state, but may include convicted felons (in some states only during the prison term) and those who been judged legally insane.

Voter Registration Process

Each state is free to set its own voter registration requirements, provided that they fall within the terms of the National Voter Registration Act. Voters must demonstrate proof of identity the first time that they register to vote. They must also demonstrate that they have an address in the state where they will vote, although this may be a temporary address. For example, college students living on campus may register to vote near their campuses.

When registering to vote, voters are asked to select a primary party affiliation. It is not necessary to pay any money or join a particular party; the affiliation is used only to determine which partisan elections the voter will be eligible for. Many states open primary elections only to registered members of that party, although several states offer nonpartisan primary elections. In nonpartisan primary states, voters may elect to vote in either party’s primary, but not both. Voters simply select a party ballot when checking in at the polling location. General elections are open to all. There is nothing to prevent a registered voter of one party from voting for another party’s candidate in the general election.