A Thumbnail Description of Voter Registration

States generally require that a voter be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years of age, and a resident (in some cases, a resident for some minimum period of time, such as 30 days). Some states also limit voter eligibility on the basis of criminal status (for example, incarcerated felons may not be permitted to vote), and some on the basis of mental competency, although the specifics of these limitations vary.1

As a general rule, a voter registers to vote in a specific geographic jurisdiction that is determined from the residential address that he or she provides for the purpose of voting. Citizens can register to vote at election offices. Depending on the state, citizens can also obtain voter registration materials in many places, including military facilities, assisted living facilities, high schools, vocational schools, social service agencies, nursing homes, and libraries, or through voter registration drives, or by downloading materials from the Internet. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act requires all states to provide such materials at their departments of motor vehicles, departments of human services, and public assistance agencies. By filling out the required forms and providing the necessary identification, citizens in all states can also register to vote by mail. In at least two states (Washington and Arizona), a citizen can register to vote through the Internet if he or she already has a driver’s license or a state-issued ID from that state.

The voter completes the registration form and it is returned to the election office. The returned materials are accompanied by an original signature that serves as an authentication mechanism when voter registration must be checked in the future. If the voter registers at a department of motor vehicles, the relevant information may be extracted from the information on file or provided at the department of motor vehicles (DMV) and transmitted electronically to the election office, along with the signature on file with the DMV as an authentication device for the voter at the polls. Overseas voters, and members of the U.S. armed forces and their dependents, can sometimes register to vote by fax.

The voting address of record determines the precinct from which the voter may cast his or her ballot, whether at the polling place, or by absentee or mail ballot, or by an early vote. A precinct is a subdivision of a local election jurisdiction, and all voters in a given precinct vote at one polling place. (Sometimes, a number of small precincts are consolidated at one polling place, and sometimes election officials can require that all voters from certain precincts vote by mail.) A local election jurisdiction is an administrative entity responsible for the conduct and administration of elections within it, and may be a county or a municipality (a city or town).


1A description of the legal restrictions on felons and voting rights in a large number of states can be found in American Civil Liberties Union, Purged! How Flawed and Inconsistent Voting Systems Could Deprive Millions of Americans of the Right to Vote, October 2004, available at

SOURCE: Adapted largely from National Research Council, Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting, Richard Celeste, Dick Thornburgh, and Herbert Lin (eds.), The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.

implementation of the NVRA. Figure A.1 illustrates the various list maintenance options under the NVRA.

Following the passage of the NVRA, a variety of proposals were made to further enhance voter registration by the creation of centralized statewide voter registration databases. Following the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002 to undertake a number of electoral reforms.

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