From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: The push to end election-day registration in Wisconsin: How strong is the case?
For more than 30 years, Wisconsinites have been able to register to vote on Election Day.
But Republicans now in power in Madison would like to end this practice. But ending election-day registration would be a major change to Wisconsin's election system. It would impose new costs and regulations on the state. It would likely reduce voter turnout. In partisan terms, most people in the political world assume it would depress Democratic turnout more than Republican turnout, which helps explain why Republicans support the change and Democrats oppose it.
The longtime head of the state’s election system, Kevin Kennedy, believes it would be a big mistake. “Repealing it would be shortsighted and would be a tremendous disservice to the voters,” … also called it a “financially foolhardy step to take.”
In the mid-'70s, Minnesota and Wisconsin became the first two states in the country to let voters register at the polls on election day. Others followed … In 2008, the top six turnout states according to George Mason University turnout expert Michael McDonald: Minnesota (77.7%), Wisconsin (72.1%), New Hampshire (71.1%), Maine (70.9%), Colorado (70.2 … All but Colorado have election-day registration … increases participation by a few percentage points. In Wisconsin, anywhere from 10% to 15% of voters typically register on election day … about 460,000. Many were new voters, but many were habitual voters updating their addresses.
What are the arguments for ending election-day registration? … reducing the chaos of election day caused by voters performing two tasks (registering and voting) instead of one (voting); getting rid of election-day registration would not so much streamline the experience … you would have the right under federal law to cast a provisional … "It's not like you get rid of the extra attention for people not registered. You redirect it to an equally, if not more, time-consuming process," says Kennedy … those provisional ballots, which can run in the tens of.
The state is now exempt from mandates of the federal “motor-voter” law because it has election-day registration … opponents are “not looking at the bureaucratic morass that’s now going to be imposed on state agencies and local election officials by having to comply with pre-election requirements to turn DOT (Department of Transportation) workers and social welfare state employees into voter registrars.”
What about the argument that ending election-day registration would reduce the potential for fraud? The problem … not a lot of evidence, in either official investigations or academic research, of systematic or extensive voter fraud. “It just doesn’t exist on a widespread basis,” says Doug Lewis, head of the National Association of Election Officials. Nor is there much evidence that fraud is a particular by-product of election-day registration.
Democrats believe that Democratic-leaning groups (young and low-income voters especially) are the most likely to take advantage of election-day registration, because they are less likely to be registered in the first place or because they’re more transient. And in recent elections, college students have voted decisively for Democrats. Republicans also believe that election-day registration is helpful to Democrats, otherwise they would never support getting rid of it. Whether this is in fact true is not known with any real certainty.
A study by University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden challenges the conventional wisdom about this. Burden examined the moment when Wisconsin fully converted to election-day registration in the mid-'70s and found that the new rule actually boosted the 1976 GOP presidential vote, controlling for all other factors. How did it boost the GOP vote? … the people motivated enough to take advantage of election day registration had demographic characteristics more strongly associated with Republicans than Democrats (having higher income, being married, owning a home, going to church, etc.). (Go here to click on "working papers," then click on the paper titled, "The Impact of Election Day Registration on Voter Turnout and Election Outcomes.") … the study is a cautionary lesson about political assumptions.
“It’s going to be an expense for the state,” adds Burden. “And you may do something that actually hurts your party if you’re Republican.”
According to Kennedy: “You’re the driving up the cost of running elections, probably creating messier voting data as a result, and not really combating election fraud in the process, and at the cost of inconveniencing a significant number of voters.”