BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Later is better" when it comes to voter
registration in national elections, according a new study of voter
participation in the 2000 presidential election.
People who register to vote closer to registration deadlines are
much more likely to vote on Election Day than are people who
register earlier in an election year, according to the study
conducted by political scientists from the University at Buffalo,
University of Maryland and University of Texas.
"It's a very interesting pattern," says UB researcher Joshua J.
Dyck, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science. "For
political campaigns focused on get-out-the-vote efforts, the
takeaway message is this: you'll get more bang for your buck if you
focus on the narrow window close to the registration deadline.
"That's where we see a huge surge in voter registration and
those people are much more likely to turn out to vote."
Dyck's co-researchers were James G. Gimpel, Ph.D., professor of
government at University of Maryland, and Daron R. Shaw, Ph.D.,
associate professor of government at University of Texas.
The researchers focused on voter registration and voter turnout
in large counties in six states during the 2000 presidential
campaign. These included battleground states Florida, Iowa and New
Mexico, as well as Kentucky, Nevada and North Carolina. The sample
included more than 400,000 registered voters. The deadline for
voter registration is about 30 days before an election in most
To be published in a forthcoming issue of Party Politics, the
study is one of the first to assess to the effect of timing and
campaign activity on voter registration, explains Dyck, an expert
on political participation. Campaigns historically have focused on
turning out registered voters, but with the closeness of recent
national elections the major parties are focusing more on voter
registration, he notes.
"Political parties are much more effective at turning out people
who they know are going to be reliable supporters than they are at
generating new voters," Dyck explains. "These results show that
they should consider adding late-registration drives to their
outreach, and that timing is important."
The study found that people who registered to vote the week of
the registration deadline were 16 percent more likely to vote than
those who registered one year from the deadline. Of the late
registrants, young adults were 15 percent less likely to vote than
older adults, and women were more likely than men to turn out.
Across all counties studied, an average of 125 percent more
registrants signed up in the three weeks prior to the deadline than
in all previous weeks.
Also, Republican late registrants were much more likely to vote
than late-registering Democrats. The study showed that in most
places where Democrats "won" the election in 2000, they had to
register many more people than the Republicans because the GOP's
new registrants appeared to vote at almost twice the rate as new
Democratic registrants. Late registrants from both parties were
more likely to vote than independents.
As a group, late registrants were generally young adults between
the ages of 18-49; the majority were under 40. Most late
registrants were independents, particularly among younger
The study also found that spikes in voter registration coincided
with the occurrence of conventions, primaries and other major
political events during an election year. "This would appear to be
good news for campaign organizers, but it is unclear if the spike
in registrations after major political events is result of
extensive party outreach that accompany these events or a
spontaneous reaction," Dyck says.
Another spike in registration occurred after Independence Day,
when campaigns targeted communities that grant citizenship to
immigrants on that date, the study shows.
On the flipside, the study also suggests much more muted
electoral effects from motor voter laws. While people are
registering with greater frequency when they make their regular
trip to the DMV, the electoral gains realized from this
registration increase is nowhere near to what you get over the
course of a campaign.
"Reforms, such as motor voter laws, aimed solely at increasing
registration rates, will not necessarily lead to higher voter
turnout," Dyck says.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the
State University of New York.