Survey Suggests Voter Registration Problems Were Major Factor in Three Million Americans' Inability to Vote in 2008

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Survey Suggests Voter Registration Problems Were Major Factor in Three Million Americans' Inability to Vote in 2008

As many as three million registered voters did not cast a ballot in the 2008 General Election due to voter registration problems, suggests a survey cited today by Doug Chapin, director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States in testimony before the Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration.  The problem was most acute for younger voters and registered voters who moved less than a year ago, one in four of whom said that a problem with their registration was a major reason why they did not cast a ballot.

Chapin's testimony at the hearing today on “The 2008 Election: A Look Back on What Went Right and Wrong” was based on the “2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections,” conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The survey found that while most Americans who voted on Election Day had a positive experience, problems with election administration–including registration, polling place location, voter identification and long lines–affected millions of voters, and most significantly, were a major factor preventing as many as 38%  of voters who registered but did not go to the polls to vote. 

“While the 2008 election was a success in many regards, significant challenges in several areas of election administration remain,” said Chapin.  “Improvements in voter registration could go a long way in removing obstacles cited by voters that prevented them from participating in last year's election.”  

The 2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the Pew Center on the States with support from AARP and the JEHT Foundation, is the first comprehensive nationwide study focused exclusively on how voters experience the administration of elections in the United States. 

Applying the survey findings to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate's estimated 23.2 million registered voters who did not cast a ballot, the MIT study suggests approximately three million voters (13% of registered nonvoters surveyed) did not cast a ballot because of a problem with their voter registration.  In addition, millions of voters did not vote because lines were too long (11% of registered nonvoters surveyed), they could not find their polling place (9%) or they lacked the proper ID (7%).  Most voters cited a combination of reasons for not voting and many gave other reasons in addition to election administration problems for their failure to participate. However, 13% of nonvoters who were registered, or an estimated three million people, cited reasons solely related to navigating the current election system as major factors in why they did not vote.

Since 2001, the Pew Center on the States has worked in the field of election administration examining the most pressing election problems, undertaking studies and evaluating pilot projects to identify efficient, cost-effective solutions.    Pew's performance-based approach includes reaching out to election officials, policy makers and leaders from the private sector to identify and implement innovative election system reform.

“States are taking the lead in identifying opportunities for reform,” said Chapin, citing efforts in Minnesota to update the voter rolls using change-of-address information from the U.S. Postal Service and new online voter registration systems in Arizona and Washington. “Pew will continue its efforts to assist election officials in overcoming the barriers to innovation and to foster an election system that is efficient, accurate, convenient and secure.”

The MIT survey revealed voter registration challenges which stem from an outdated registration system in need of modernization.  By commissioning a range of rigorous case studies on initiatives to field test reforms and examine cutting-edge solutions, The Pew Center on the States facilitates dialogue among states to plan and design a more modern, accurate and cost-effective voter registration system. 

The MIT survey included interviews with 10,000 registered voters (200 in each state) via the Internet and interviews with an additional 2,000 registered voters in ten states via phone in November 2008.

Read the MIT survey (PDF) and Doug Chapin's testimony.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit