Voting

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section you will be able to:

  • Identify ways the U.S. government has promoted voter rights and registration
  • Summarize similarities and differences in states’ voter registration methods
  • Analyze ways states increase voter registration and decrease fraud
  • Discuss the voting requirements in Texas
  • Understand the factors that affect voter turnout
  • Analyze the factors that typically affect a voter’s decision
  • Undertand voter registration rates in Texas
  • Understand voter turnout in Texas

Before most voters are allowed to cast a ballot, they must register to vote in their state. This process may be as simple as checking a box on a driver’s license application or as difficult as filling out a long form with complicated questions. Registration allows governments to determine which citizens are allowed to vote and, in some cases, from which list of candidates they may select a party nominee. Ironically, while government wants to increase voter turnout, the registration process may prevent various groups of citizens and non-citizens from participating in the electoral process.

Voter Registration Across the United States

Elections are state-by-state contests. They include general elections for president and statewide offices (e.g., governor and U.S. senator), and they are often organized and paid for by the states. Because political cultures vary from state to state, the process of voter registration similarly varies. For example, suppose an 85-year-old retiree with an expired driver’s license wants to register to vote. He or she might be able to register quickly in California or Florida, but a current government ID might be required prior to registration in Texas or Indiana.

The varied registration and voting laws across the United States have long caused controversy. In the aftermath of the Civil War, southern states enacted literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other requirements intended to disenfranchise black voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Literacy tests were long and detailed exams on local and national politics, history, and more. They were often administered arbitrarily with more blacks required to take them than whites.[1]

Poll taxes required voters to pay a fee to vote. Grandfather clauses exempted individuals from taking literacy tests or paying poll taxes if they or their fathers or grandfathers had been permitted to vote prior to a certain point in time. While the Supreme Court determined that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional in 1915, states continued to use poll taxes and literacy tests to deter potential voters from registering.[2]

States also ignored instances of violence and intimidation against African Americans wanting to register or vote.[3]

The ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 ended poll taxes, but the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 had a more profound effect. The act protected the rights of minority voters by prohibiting state laws that denied voting rights based on race. The VRA gave the attorney general of the United States authority to order federal examiners to areas with a history of discrimination. These examiners had the power to oversee and monitor voter registration and elections. States found to violate provisions of the VRA were required to get any changes in their election laws approved by the U.S. attorney general or by going through the court system. However, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, threw out the standards and process of the VRA, effectively gutting the landmark legislation.[4]

Image A is an official document. The text is unreadable. Image B is of a group of people, including Lyndon B. John, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.

The Voting Rights Act (a) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson (b, left) on August 6, 1965, in the presence of major figures of the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. (b, center).

The effects of the VRA were visible almost immediately. In Mississippi, only 6.7 percent of blacks were registered to vote in 1965; however, by the fall of 1967, nearly 60 percent were registered. Alabama experienced similar effects, with African American registration increasing from 19.3 percent to 51.6 percent. Voter turnout across these two states similarly increased. Mississippi went from 33.9 percent turnout to 53.2 percent, while Alabama increased from 35.9 percent to 52.7 percent between the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections.[5]

Following the implementation of the VRA, many states have sought other methods of increasing voter registration. Several states make registering to vote relatively easy for citizens who have government documentation. Oregon has few requirements for registering and registers many of its voters automatically. North Dakota has no registration at all. In 2002, Arizona was the first state to offer online voter registration, which allowed citizens with a driver’s license to register to vote without any paper application or signature. The system matches the information on the application to information stored at the Department of Motor Vehicles, to ensure each citizen is registering to vote in the right precinct. Citizens without a driver’s license still need to file a paper application. More than eighteen states have moved to online registration or passed laws to begin doing so. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates, however, that adopting an online voter registration system can initially cost a state between $250,000 and $750,000.[6]

Other states have decided against online registration due to concerns about voter fraud and security. Legislators also argue that online registration makes it difficult to ensure that only citizens are registering and that they are registering in the correct precincts. As technology continues to update other areas of state recordkeeping, online registration may become easier and safer. In some areas, citizens have pressured the states and pushed the process along. A bill to move registration online in Florida stalled for over a year in the legislature, based on security concerns. With strong citizen support, however, it was passed and signed in 2015, despite the governor’s lingering concerns. In other states, such as Texas, both the government and citizens are concerned about identity fraud, so traditional paper registration is still preferred.

How Does Someone Register to Vote?

The National Commission on Voting Rights completed a study in September 2015 that found state registration laws can either raise or reduce voter turnout rates, especially among citizens who are young or whose income falls below the poverty line. States with simple voter registration had more registered citizens.[7]

In all states except North Dakota, a citizen wishing to vote must complete an application. Whether the form is online or on paper, the prospective voter will list his or her name, residency address, and in many cases party identification (with Independent as an option) and affirm that he or she is competent to vote. States may also have a residency requirement, which establishes how long a citizen must live in a state before becoming eligible to register: it is often 30 days. Beyond these requirements, there may be an oath administered or more questions asked, such as felony convictions. If the application is completely online and the citizen has government documents (e.g., driver’s license or state identification card), the system will compare the application to other state records and accept an online signature or affidavit if everything matches up correctly. Citizens who do not have these state documents are often required to complete paper applications. States without online registration often allow a citizen to fill out an application on a website, but the citizen will receive a paper copy in the mail to sign and mail back to the state.

Another aspect of registering to vote is the timeline. States may require registration to take place as much as thirty days before voting, or they may allow same-day registration. Maine first implemented same-day registration in 1973. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now allow voters to register the day of the election if they have proof of residency, such as a driver’s license or utility bill. Many of the more populous states (e.g., Michigan and Texas), require registration forms to be mailed thirty days before an election. Moving means citizens must re-register or update addresses. College students, for example, may have to re-register or update addresses each year as they move. States that use same-day registration had a 4 percent higher voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election than states that did not.[8]

An image of a Notice of Change of Address

Moving requires a voter to re-register or update his or her address in the system. Depending on the state, this notification can sometimes be completed through the Department of Motor Vehicles, as in California.

Some attempts have been made to streamline voter registration. The National Voter Registration Act (1993), often referred to as Motor Voter, was enacted to expedite the registration process and make it as simple as possible for voters. The act required states to allow citizens to register to vote when they sign up for driver’s licenses and Social Security benefits. On each government form, the citizen need only mark an additional box to also register to vote. Unfortunately, while increasing registrations by 7 percent between 1992 and 2012, Motor Voter did not dramatically increase voter turnout.[9] In fact, for two years following the passage of the act, voter turnout decreased slightly.[10]

It appears that the main users of the expedited system were those already intending to vote. One study, however, found that preregistration may have a different effect on youth than on the overall voter pool; in Florida, it increased turnout of young voters by 13 percent.[11]

In 2015, Oregon made news when it took the concept of Motor Voter further. When citizens turn eighteen, the state now automatically registers most of them using driver’s license and state identification information. When a citizen moves, the voter rolls are updated when the license is updated. While this policy has been controversial, with some arguing that private information may become public or that Oregon is moving toward mandatory voting, automatic registration is consistent with the state’s efforts to increase registration and turnout.[12]

Oregon’s example offers a possible solution to a recurring problem for states—maintaining accurate voter registration rolls. During the 2000 election, in which George W. Bush won Florida’s electoral votes by a slim majority, attention turned to the state’s election procedures and voter registration rolls. Journalists found that many states, including Florida, had large numbers of phantom voters on their rolls, voters had moved or died but remained on the states’ voter registration rolls.[13]

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was passed in order to reform voting across the states and reduce these problems. As part of the Act, states were required to update voting equipment, make voting more accessible to the disabled, and maintain computerized voter rolls that could be updated regularly.[14]

Over a decade later, there has been some progress. In Louisiana, voters are placed on ineligible lists if a voting registrar is notified that they have moved or become ineligible to vote. If the voter remains on this list for two general elections, his or her registration is cancelled. In Oklahoma, the registrar receives a list of deceased residents from the Department of Health.[15]

Twenty-nine states now participate in the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which allows states to check for duplicate registrations.[16]

At the same time, Florida’s use of the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database has proven to be controversial, because county elections supervisors are allowed to remove voters deemed ineligible to vote.[17] Despite these efforts, a study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust found twenty-four million voter registrations nationwide were no longer valid. [18]

Pew is now working with eight states to update their voter registration rolls and encouraging more states to share their rolls in an effort to find duplicates.[19]

Who Is Allowed to Register?

In order to be eligible to vote in the United States, a person must be a citizen, resident, and eighteen years old. But states often place additional requirements on the right to vote. The most common requirement is that voters must be mentally competent and not currently serving time in jail. Some states enforce more stringent or unusual requirements on citizens who have committed crimes. Florida and Kentucky permanently bar felons and ex-felons from voting unless they obtain a pardon from the governor, while Mississippi and Nevada allow former felons to apply to have their voting rights restored.[20]

On the other end of the spectrum, Vermont does not limit voting based on incarceration unless the crime was election fraud.[21] Maine citizens serving in Maine prisons also may vote in elections.

Beyond those jailed, some citizens have additional expectations placed on them when they register to vote. Wisconsin requires that voters “not wager on an election,” and Vermont citizens must recite the “Voter’s Oath” before they register, swearing to cast votes with a conscience and “without fear or favor of any person.”[22]

Voter Decision Making

When citizens do vote, how do they make their decisions? The election environment is complex and most voters don’t have time to research everything about the candidates and issues. Yet they will need to make a fully rational assessment of the choices for an elected office. To meet this goal, they tend to take shortcuts.

One popular shortcut is simply to vote using party affiliation. Many political scientists consider party-line voting to be rational behavior because citizens register for parties based upon either position preference or socialization. Similarly, candidates align with parties based upon their issue positions. A Democrat who votes for a Democrat is very likely selecting the candidate closest to his or her personal ideology. While party identification is a voting cue, it also makes for a logical decision.

Citizens also use party identification to make decisions via straight-ticket voting—choosing every Republican or Democratic Party member on the ballot. In some states, such as Texas or Michigan, selecting one box at the top of the ballot gives a single party all the votes on the ballot. Straight-ticket voting does cause problems in states that include non-partisan positions on the ballot. In Michigan, for example, the top of the ballot (presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial and representative seats) will be partisan, and a straight-ticket vote will give a vote to all the candidates in the selected party. But the middle or bottom of the ballot includes seats for local offices or judicial seats, which are non-partisan. These offices would receive no vote, because the straight-ticket votes go only to partisan seats. In 2010, actors from the former political drama The West Wing came together to create an advertisement for Mary McCormack’s sister Bridget, who was running for a non-partisan seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. The ad reminded straight-ticket voters to cast a ballot for the court seats as well; otherwise, they would miss an important election. McCormack won the seat.

An image of an official ballot for the 2012 general election. A callout box highlights the section titled

Voters in Michigan can use straight-ticket voting. To fill out their ballot, they select one box at the top to give a single party all the votes on the ballot.

Straight-ticket voting does have the advantage of reducing ballot fatigue. Ballot fatigue occurs when someone votes only for the top or important ballot positions, such as president or governor, and stops voting rather than continue to the bottom of a long ballot. In 2012, for example, 70 percent of registered voters in Colorado cast a ballot for the presidential seat, yet only 54 percent voted yes or no on retaining Nathan B. Coats for the state supreme court.[23] Voters make decisions based upon candidates’ physical characteristics, such as attractiveness or facial features.[24]

They may also vote based on gender or race, because they assume the elected official will make policy decisions based on a demographic shared with the voters. Candidates are very aware of voters’ focus on these non-political traits. In 2008, a sizable portion of the electorate wanted to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama because they offered new demographics—either the first woman or the first black president. Demographics hurt John McCain that year, because many people believed that at 71 he was too old to be president.[25]

Hillary Clinton was criticized in 2008 on the grounds that she had not aged gracefully and wore pantsuits. In essence, attractiveness can make a candidate appear more competent, which in turn can help him or her ultimately win.[26]

Aside from party identification and demographics, voters will also look at issues or the economy when making a decision. For some single-issue voters, a candidate’s stance on abortion rights will be a major factor, while other voters may look at the candidates’ beliefs on the Second Amendment and gun control. Single-issue voting may not require much more effort by the voter than simply using party identification; however, many voters are likely to seek out a candidate’s position on a multitude of issues before making a decision. They will use the information they find in several ways.

Retrospective voting occurs when the voter looks at the candidate’s past actions and the past economic climate and makes a decision only using these factors. This behavior may occur during economic downturns or after political scandals, when voters hold politicians accountable and do not wish to give the representative a second chance. Pocketbook voting occurs when the voter looks at his or her personal finances and circumstances to decide how to vote. Someone having a harder time finding employment or seeing investments suffer during a particular candidate or party’s control of government will vote for a different candidate or party than the incumbent. Prospective voting occurs when the voter applies information about a candidate’s past behavior to decide how the candidate will act in the future. For example, will the candidate’s voting record or actions help the economy and better prepare him or her to be president during an economic downturn? The challenge of this voting method is that the voters must use a lot of information, which might be conflicting or unrelated, to make an educated guess about how the candidate will perform in the future. Voters do appear to rely on prospective and retrospective voting more often than on pocketbook voting.

In some cases, a voter may cast a ballot strategically. In these cases, a person may vote for a second- or third-choice candidate, either because his or her preferred candidate cannot win or in the hope of preventing another candidate from winning. This type of voting is likely to happen when there are multiple candidates for one position or multiple parties running for one seat.[27]

In Florida and Oregon, for example, Green Party voters (who tend to be liberal) may choose to vote for a Democrat if the Democrat might otherwise lose to a Republican. Similarly, in Georgia, while a Libertarian may be the preferred candidate, the voter would rather have the Republican candidate win over the Democrat and will vote accordingly.[28]

One other way voters make decisions is through incumbency. In essence, this is retrospective voting, but it requires little of the voter. In congressional and local elections, incumbents win reelection up to 90 percent of the time, a result called the incumbency advantage. What contributes to this advantage and often persuades competent challengers not to run? First, incumbents have name recognition and voting records. The media is more likely to interview them because they have advertised their name over several elections and have voted on legislation affecting the state or district. Incumbents also have won election before, which increases the odds that political action committees and interest groups will give them money; most interest groups will not give money to a candidate destined to lose.

Incumbents also have franking privileges, which allows them a limited amount of free mail to communicate with the voters in their district. While these mailings may not be sent in the days leading up to an election—sixty days for a senator and ninety days for a House member—congressional representatives are able to build a free relationship with voters through them.[29] Moreover, incumbents have exiting campaign organizations, while challengers must build new organizations from the ground up. Lastly, incumbents have more money in their war chests than most challengers.

Another incumbent advantage is gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to guarantee a desired electoral outcome. Every ten years, following the U.S. Census, the number of House of Representatives members allotted to each state is determined based on a state’s population. If a state gains or loses seats in the House, the state must redraw districts to ensure each district has an equal number of citizens. States may also choose to redraw these districts at other times and for other reasons.[30] If the district is drawn to ensure that it includes a majority of Democratic or Republican Party members within its boundaries, for instance, then candidates from those parties will have an advantage.

Gerrymandering helps local legislative candidates and members of the House of Representatives, who win reelection over 90 percent of the time. Senators and presidents do not benefit from gerrymandering because they are not running in a district. Presidents and senators win states, so they benefit only from war chests and name recognition. This is one reason why senators running in 2014, for example, won reelection only 82 percent of the time.[31]

Texas Voter Requirements

Texas voter requirements are:[32]

  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Must be a resident of the county
  • Must be at least 18 years old (a person may register to vote at 17 years and 10 months)
  • Not a convicted felon (Eligible to vote once the person’s sentence is complete)
  • Not declared mentally incapacitated by a court of law
  • Must present an acceptable form of photo identification

Texas also has absentee voting (where an individual does not need to be physically present at the poll to cast their ballot), and early voting (17 days before and 4 days until the regular election).

Voter Regisration Rates in Texas

Texas fares poorly in recent comparisons of registration rates among states. In the 2016 elections, Texas ranked 46 out of 51 (including the District of Columbia) for percentage of eligible population (excluding non-citizens for instance).

Voter Turnout in Texas

Similarly, Texas ranked 48 out of 51 for the percentage of eligible population who turned out to vote in the 2016 elections.


  1. Stephen Medvic. 2014. Campaigns and Elections: Players and Processes, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
  2. Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915).
  3. Medvic, Campaigns and Elections.
  4. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
  5. Bernard Grofman, Lisa Handley, and Richard G. Niemi. 1992. Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 25.
  6. “The Canvass,” April 2014, Issue 48, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/states-and-election-reform-the-canvass-april-2014.aspx.
  7. Tova Wang and Maria Peralta. 22 September 2015. “New Report Released by National Commission on Voting Rights: More Work Needed to Improve Registration and Voting in the U.S.” http://votingrightstoday.org/ncvr/resources/electionadmin.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Royce Crocker, “The National Voter Registration Act of 1993: History, Implementation, and Effects,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report R40609, September 18, 2013, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40609.pdf.
  10. “National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789–Present,” http://www.electproject.org/national-1789-present (November 4, 2015).
  11. John B. Holbein, D. Sunshine Hillygus. 2015. “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science (March). doi:10.1111/ajps.12177.
  12. Russell Berman, “Should Voter Registration Be Automatic?” Atlantic, 20 March 2015; Maria L. La Ganga, “Under New Oregon Law, All Eligible Voters are Registered Unless They Opt Out,” Los Angeles Times, 17 March 2015.
  13. “‘Unusable’ Voter Rolls,” Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2000.
  14. “One Hundred Seventh Congress of the United States of America at the Second Session,” 23 January 2002. http://www.eac.gov/assets/1/workflow_staging/Page/41.PDF.
  15. “Voter List Accuracy,”11 February 2014. http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-list-accuracy.aspx
  16. Brad Bryant and Kay Curtis, eds. December 2013. “Interstate Crosscheck Program Grows,” http://www.kssos.org/forms/communication/canvassing_kansas/dec13.pdf.
  17. Troy Kinsey, “Proposed Bills Put Greater Scrutiny on Florida’s Voter Purges,” Bay News, 9 November 2015.
  18. Pam Fessler, “Study: 1.8 Million Dead People Still Registered to Vote,” National Public Radio, 14 February 2013; “Report: Inaccurate, Costly, an Inefficient,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, February 14, 2012.
  19. Fessler, “Study: 1.8 Million Dead People Still Registered to Vote.”
  20. “Felon Voting Rights,” 15 July 2014. http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx.
  21. Wilson Ring, “Vermont, Maine Only States to Let Inmates Vote,” Associated Press, 22 October 2008.
  22. “Voter’s Qualifications and Oath,” https://votesmart.org/elections/ballot-measure/1583/voters-qualifications-and-oath#.VjQOJH6rS00 (November 12, 2015).
  23. “Presidential Electors,” http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/Results/Abstract/2012/general/president.html (July 15, 2015); “Judicial Retention–Supreme Court,” http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/Results/Abstract/2012/general/retention/supremeCourt.html (July 15, 2015).
  24. Lasse Laustsen. 2014. “Decomposing the Relationship Between Candidates’ Facial Appearance and Electoral Success,” Political Behavior 36, No. 4: 777–791.
  25. Alan Silverleib. 15 June 2008. “Analysis: Age an Issue in the 2008 Campaign?” http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/06/15/mccain.age/index.html?iref=newssearch.
  26. Laustsen. “Decomposing the Relationship,” 777–791.
  27. R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler. 2000. “A New Approach for Modelling Strategic Voting in Multiparty Elections,” British Journal of Political Science 30, No. 1: 57–75.
  28. Nathan Thomburgh, “Could Third-Party Candidates Be Spoilers?” Time, 3 November 2008.
  29. Matthew E. Glassman, “Congressional Franking Privilege: Background and Current Legislation,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report RS22771, December 11, 2007, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS22771.pdf.
  30. League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006).
  31. “Reelection Rates of the Years,” https://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php (November 2, 2015).
  32. http://www.votetexas.gov/register-to-vote/need-id