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Portable Voter Registration


I find that statewide registration portability—permitting registrants who move anywhere within a state to transfer their registration and vote on Election Day at their new polling place—increases turnout rates among movers by 2.4% points. The effect is similar among movers living in EDR states, suggesting that about a quarter of the beneficial turnout effect of EDR is realized by recent movers. Yet, movers are still less likely to vote even where these policies are present. These findings further challenge existing literature that finds that reregistering is the primary impediment of voting among movers.

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  1. Dan Gearino. “Senate passes election-day voter registration.” Globe Gazette. March 27, 2007. In 2007, North Carolina passed Election Day Registration for early voters, see: Mark Binker. “Legislature: House tentatively backs voter registration change.” Raleigh News Record, March 28, 2007. For other legislative action, see Greene (2007a).

  2. For example, scholars find significant turnout effects among states using varying mail-in registration (Knack 1995; Rhine 1996) and more intricate procedural variation in extended registration hours and procedures for purging deadwood from registration lists (Rosenstone and Wolfinger 1978; Mitchell and Wlezien 1995).

  3. This is perhaps the greatest number of persons affected by post-registration deadline procedures. There are other categories, too. Depending on state law, persons who change names, are discharged from the military, or have become new citizens may be permitted to register and vote after a deadline. Under federal provisions in the Voting Rights Act (42 USC § 1973aa-1(e)), registered voters who establish new residency outside a state 30 days prior to the election are permitted to vote for presidential electors in their state of previous domicile.

  4. 42 U.S.C. 20 § 1973gg-6(c).

  5. Rhode Island is instructive of the fine print that makes it difficult to classify election administration procedures. Election Day registration is permitted for persons casting a vote for president only (R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-1-3), and the state enables statewide portable registration for moves 30 days or more before an election, for moves of less than 30 days, registrants must vote at their former precinct (R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-9.1-16(a)(2)). I define Rhode Island as an EDR state because a presidential election is analyzed here.

  6. The specification of ‘non-voter’ is consistent with the Census Bureau (2005) definitions (see also, Leighley and Nagler 1992).

  7. Alternative operationalization of recent movers was tested in the statistical analysis of voting propensities that follows. These specifications reveal that shorter time-horizons, e.g., 6–11 months, shifted the positive estimated effect of an interaction term identifying movers in states with statewide portable registration into the coefficient for a dichotomous variable indicating if a state has statewide portable registration, raising this coefficient to statistical significance in some tested models. This dynamic suggests that defining movers as someone who moved since the last presidential election correctly includes those peripheral voters among recent movers advantaged by statewide portable registration.

  8. The CPS is a large survey, so the 95% confidence interval for the cell proportions reported here tend to be plus or minus one half of a percentage point or less. Thirty two percent of citizen-voting-age recent movers (persons living 4 years or less at their current address) reported being age 18–29 compared to 12% among others. Movers tend to be persons of color: 64% of movers identified themselves as non-Hispanic White compared to 77% among others. They tend to by much less likely to own a home: 54% of movers compared to 89% of others. Movers only tend to be a little poorer: e.g., 32% reported family income less than $15,000 compared to 29% among others. And movers are slightly more educated: e.g., 54% of movers report at least a high school education compared to 52% among others.

  9. For all 2004 North Carolina voters, 14% were age 18–29 compared to 26% for those who registered and voted on Election Day. Whites were 79% of all voters, compared to 64% among Election Day registrant voters. Among all voters, 47% registered as a Democrat, 37% Republican, and 16% undeclared or minor party; among Election Day registrant voters, 44% registered as Democrat, 35% Republican, and 20% undeclared or minor party.


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I would like to thank Paul Gronke, Sam Popkin, two anonymous reviewers, the Political Behavior editors, and participants of an April 15, 2007 Midwest Political Science Association conference panel, a May 18, 2007 Brookings/American Enterprise Institute Election Reform Project conference and a June, 23 Tobin Project Democracy Working Group meeting for their helpful comments. All errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Michael P. McDonald.

Appendix: Variable Descriptions

Appendix: Variable Descriptions

All individual level data are taken from the 2004 Current Population Survey, Voter Supplement File. All variables with missing data are listwise deleted from the analysis.

Voted. (PES1) Valid universe: citizens age 18 and older. 0 = reported did not vote/did not know/refused, 1 = reported voted.

Education. (PEEDUCA) 0 = persons with less than a high school diploma, 1 = persons with a high school diploma, 2 = persons with some college or an undergraduate degree, 3 = persons with at least some post-graduate education.

Household Income. (HUFAMINC) 0 = household income < $20,000, 1 = household income < $40,000, 2 = household income < $100,000, 3 = household income > $99,999.

Age. (PRTAGE) Respondent’s age top coded at 90.

Sex. (PESEX) 0 = woman, 1 = man.

Non-Hispanic White. Combination of race (PTDTRACE) and Hispanic origin (PEHISPNON). Coded 1 = Non-Hispanic White (PTDTRACE = 1 and PEHISPNON = 1), 0 = All others.

Married. (PEMARITL) 0 = not married (widowed, divorced, separated, and never married), 1 = married (married—spouse present and married—spouse absent).

Owner. (HETENURE) 0 = renter (rented for cash or occupied without payment of cash rent), 1 = owner (Owned or being bought by household member).

Mover. (PES8) 0 = resided at current address for more than 4 years, 1 = resided at current address for 4 or less years.

Presidential Margin of Victory. Statewide margin of victory calculated as a percentage of total vote among all presidential candidates. Data obtained from state election administration offices.

EDR. States with Election Day Registration in 2004 are Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota (no registration), Rhode Island (presidential electors only), Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Data compiled by author and obtained through examination of state election codes.

Statewide Registration Portability. States that permit current registrants to register and change address on Election Day at their new polling place: Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. South Dakota and Washington, which permit statewide registration portability by absentee balloting or a previous polling place are excluded in this definition. Data compiled by author and obtained through examination of state election codes.

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McDonald, M.P. Portable Voter Registration. Polit Behav 30, 491–501 (2008).

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  • Voter turnout
  • Voter registration
  • Residential mobility