Expert Commentary

Election Beat 2020: The mysterious voter registration deadline

The news media would perform a public service by making Americans aware of voter registration deadlines and what they need to do to participate in elections, writes media scholar Thomas E. Patterson.

voter registration deadline

What’s the voter registration deadline in your state? If you know the answer, you’re almost certainly a political junkie or happen to live in a state where the date is easy to remember — the roughly dozen states that allow citizens to register at the polls on Election Day. Almost no other eligible voter knows it.

This year’s pitched partisan struggle over ballot access deserves the press’s attention. So, too, does the date on which states close their registration in advance of Election Day. Federal law prohibits states from closing their rolls sooner than 30 days before a presidential election. Within that limit, states are free to decide when they will shut down registration.

In the 1950s, 90% of Americans lived in states that closed their registration rolls two or more weeks in advance of Election Day, a few as much as a year in advance. The situation today is better, but not commendably so. Most Americans live in states where, if you wait until less than two weeks remains in the election to try to register, you’re out of luck.

Officials in states with early closing dates say that it’s necessary in order to prepare the paperwork in time for Election Day. In an earlier time, that claim made some sense. In the electronic age when the records are digitally kept and updated, it makes less sense. A dozen states smoothly manage to let their residents wait until the last minute. They allow residents to register when they go to the polls on Election Day.

Early closing dates are partly intended to depress the turnout of groups — particularly the poor, racial and ethnic minorities and newer immigrants — who are less likely to be aware of the deadline. And it works. Although other factors are also involved, states with early deadlines have voter turnout rates that are more than 10 percentage points lower than states that employ same-day registration.

The closing date in many states for voter registration is fast approaching. Here is a list of the closing dates for in-person registration (which, in the large majority of cases, is also the deadline for postal and online registration):

Oct. 3  (South Carolina)
Oct. 4  (Alaska, Rhode Island)
Oct. 5  (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas)
Oct. 6  (Nevada, New Mexico)
Oct. 7  (Missouri)
Oct. 9  (New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma)
Oct. 10 (Delaware)
Oct. 13 (Kansas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia)
Oct. 19 (Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Wyoming)
Oct. 23 (Nebraska, Utah)
Oct. 24 (Iowa, Massachusetts)
Oct. 30 (Wisconsin)
Nov. 3  Election Day (California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, North Dakota)

The press has a role to play in ensuring that those who would like to vote get a chance to do so. Registration deadlines arrive with little fanfare from election officials, and not much more than that from news outlets. The media would perform a public service by alerting citizens to the deadlines. In addition to counting down the remaining days, they could tell citizens how to get themselves registered. Research indicates that large numbers of the unregistered are unaware of where to go to register, when registration offices reopen, or what they need to bring with them as proof of eligibility. If there’s room in the news for yet another poll report on the presidential race, room can be found to help Americans get on the registration rolls.


Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at

Further reading:

Joshua A. Douglas. “Is the Right to Vote Really Fundamental?” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, 2008.

Thomas E. Patterson. The Vanishing Voter, 2002.

Alex Street, Thomas A. Murray, John Blitzer and Rajan S. Patel. “Estimating Voter Registration Deadline Effects with Web Search Data,” Political Analysis, 2015.

Greg Vonnahme. “Registration Deadlines and Turnout in Context,” Political Behavior, 2011.

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