Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, election laws are still in the news. Much of the recent attention has gone to court battles over voter ID laws. But other barriers to voting remain. Although some states allow voters to register right up to Election Day, others require registration as much as one month beforehand. In the typical state in 2012, registration was closed for three weeks before the election. Some scholars argue that requiring early registration hurts voter mobilization in the final days of the campaign, when interest in the election is most intense. But skeptics counter that most of the people who fail to register in time have little real interest in voting. Our new research shows that there is a lot of last-minute interest. We estimate that keeping registration open through Election Day in 2012 would have allowed an additional 3 million to 4 million Americans to register and vote.
We used the number of Google searches for “register to vote” in the weeks leading up to the 2012 election to measure late interest in registering. These search terms were entered millions of times, and much of the activity fell at the very end of the campaign period.
To estimate the relationship between searching online, and actually registering, we turned to state records of registered voters. The data confirm that, in the period leading up to voter registration deadlines, the daily number of Google searches in each state was closely related to the daily number who registered. If the same pattern had been allowed to continue up to Election Day, millions more Americans would have registered in time to vote.