The system is different in every state. Some states offer online voter registration, but others do not. And deadlines are different everywhere.
About two-thirds of states require eligible voters to register before Election Day. Those deadlines fall in the first few weeks of October:
October 5: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas. October 7: Missouri. October 9: Oklahoma, New York. October 10: Delaware. October 13: Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia. October 16: Nebraska. October 19: Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota. October 24: Massachusetts.
In the remaining states, eligible voters are able register on Election Day -- although in most, voters are required to visit a polling location in person, which could present a challenge this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
You must re-register if you move. Use CNN's voter guide to check your voter registration status, change your existing registration, or find out how to register to vote in your state.
CNN spoke with Lauren Kunis, program director for National Voter Registration Day, about voter registration in 2020 and the history of voter registration in the US. The conversation, conducted over the phone and lightly edited for flow, is below.
CNN: Why do we have voter registration in the US?
LK: Voter registration is there to make sure that voter rolls are accurate and updated. Elections in the United States are decentralized. They are administered at the county level. So voter registration is a regular and ongoing process to make sure that our elections are as inclusive, accurate and credible as possible.
CNN: How can an eligible voter register to vote?
LK: Because elections are so decentralized, it depends on your state. In the majority of states, you can get register to vote online. It takes two minutes or less. It's very easy. You can go to vote.gov or you can go to our website to get the process started.
If you're in one of the states that doesn't have online registration, or if you don't have a state issued ID, you can complete the process using a paper form and you can also get that process started, by going online.
The important thing to know is that voter registration is simple, it's easy, it takes very little time, and it's really the crucial step in getting your voice heard.
CNN: How old does a citizen have to be to register to vote?
LK: You have to be 18 to cast a ballot on Election Day, but in many states, you can actually pre-register to vote starting at the age of 16 or 17 depending on your state, so that when you turn 18, you're automatically added to the voter roll.
CNN: You mentioned that in some states, voters cannot register online and are required to print and send in a registration form. What happens if an eligible voter doesn't have access to a printer?
LK: That's a challenge. And this year with Covid, with many people working from home or not on campus, they're not at places where they might already have access to a printer, it's a particular challenge. But several organizations, including ours, are making a concerted effort to step in and fill that gap.
For example, you can go to our website and you'll be able to start the process online. So you can fill out all of your information, click submit, and within a few days, we will send you a pre-printed, pre-filled voter registration form, along with the stamps and addressed envelope. Then you just have to sign it, fold it up, put it back in the mail, and that will get you registered ahead of state deadline.
So while it's definitely a challenge, it is not an insurmountable one.
CNN: Why are states' voter registration deadlines different?
LK: The different deadlines are an artifact of a decentralized electoral system and different states take different amounts of time to process voter registration to verify voter rolls.
CNN: What is the benefit of a decentralized electoral system?
LK: That's in keeping with the overall decentralized system in the United States and the idea that local ownership and control of public policies, including elections, is something that states are best placed to decide and figure out what works for them in their state.
CNN: Got it, so who's in charge of each state's voter registration rules and regulations?
LK: It's done at the county level and the local election office is the one that is the sort of primary collector of voter registration data. And then in most states, the secretary of state oversees electoral processes. In others, it's the state election director who oversees electoral processes and the secretary of state will have a verification role.
CNN: And so do you encourage anyone who may be interested in learning more about their specific state's policies to go to their local election office for that information?
LK: Absolutely. I can't stress this enough, the No. 1 trusted, reliable, up-to-date source of information about how elections work in your locality is your local election office. You can look them up online, contact them via phone, via email or in person.
It's something that I see as a real challenge in an electoral environment like this one where in many states things are shifting rapidly because of Covid. Because we have such a decentralized system, a lot of people will see on social media, for example, that their cousin in a different state posted that the registration deadline is today. And they think that might apply to them. But it's very likely not the case because policies and deadlines and procedures are different depending on where you live.
There really is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the way to get trusted, reliable, accurate information and answers to your very specific and individualized questions about voting is your local election office.
CNN: You've touched on it, but what is different about registering to vote during the pandemic?
LK: It's very different, and something I've been saying a lot, is there is a new normal and we're all figuring this out as we go along, and that applies to really all parts of life but also to voter registration.
There has been a lot of talk about what's essential and what's not over the last six months. We are of a firm position that voting is essential, and voter registration by extension, is an essential service. It's going to look different this year because it has to, but it needs to go on and in fact it is more important than ever before. And that's because the number one way that Americans typically get registered to vote is at the DMV and that's followed by in-person methods, traditional voter registration set up at concerts, at farmer's markets, anywhere where there's a high volume of foot traffic.
So given the fact that DMVs are closed, or have restricted hours or people are hesitant to go into them, and given the fact that many campuses are closed and high foot traffic is something we are trying to avoid, the situation is a lot more challenging this year. That's really backed up by data.
Some of the early data from April showed that for a sampling, the voter registrations were down by about 70% relative to April 2016. But the good news is, there's a report by the Center for Election Information and Research that shows the month by month voter registration levels. It shows a huge drop in March and April, but it started creeping back up in June and July as people pivoted and started to understand how to do this work effectively either in a safe in-person way or using virtual and online methods. That being said, there is still a pretty significant backlog in terms of new voter registrations that would have been collected earlier.
If we want to be seeing record-setting turnout this fall, we need to be seeing record-setting voter registrations right now. And we really can't let the drop in voter registrations due to the pandemic be a barrier to high levels of voter turnout.
CNN: You mentioned that a high number of Americans usually get registered to vote at the DMV. Can you explain the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Motor Voter provision?
LK: The NVRA tried to make it easier for voters to get registered. One condition of it is that you are automatically offered the opportunity to register to vote when you go into a DMV to get a new license or to update your state ID.
CNN: The Motor Voter provision may help with registering voters, but is it discriminatory for those who don't have a license or never visit the DMV?
LK: I wouldn't say that it's discriminatory by nature. But it is important to recognize that there are people who don't have state issued driver's licenses and will not seek one out. We can't assume that everyone will get registered at the DMV. That's why there are a lot of groups who have stepped up to try to fill in the gap with targeted voter registration drives at sites and with populations that might be less likely to seek out a driver's license or a state issued ID.
CNN: What are some of the virtual ways that you're targeting people this year, since you can't canvas in person?
LK: In-person work is happening. But it's happening with Covid-conscious adaptations. A lot of our partners are setting up a table, but they're enforcing cleaning and hand washing and social distancing. They're making an effort to recruit younger volunteers and making sure that there are touchless options, QR codes are available at voter registration drives. And a lot of nonprofits and public agencies are incorporating voter registration into service delivery, looking at the touch points they already have with the community and making sure that voter registration is a part of that.
Food banks are putting voter registration info into the parcels they distribute, hospitals and clinics are putting voter registration forms into the discharge paperwork, offering texts to action options in waiting rooms, school supply distribution has involved voter registration and a lot more like that. People are also doing drive through voter registration and setting up in a parking lot. We're also seeing a lot of socially distant modes for outreach like phone calls and text message campaigns that are Covid-safe.
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