First-Ever Study Finds Majority of States’ Voting Systems Failing Young Americans

A first-ever Rock the Vote analysis of the 50 states’ voting systems reveals young Americans are being left out of the democratic process because of outdated voter registration practices, barriers encountered when trying to cast a ballot, and our country’s failure to adequately prepare them for active citizenship. The full scorecard and analysis is available here.

With many states actively restricting access to the political process, the Voting System Scorecard serves as a national benchmark that measures states’ laws and policies in three key areas: (1) voter registration, (2) casting a ballot and (3) young voter preparation. The 21-point scale evaluates each state’s implementation of policies that increase access to the political process, including: automatic registration, permanent and portable registration, Same Day Registration, online registration, early voting periods, identification requirements, residency requirements, absentee voting, military and overseas voting, and high school civics curricula and evaluation.

With an average national score of just 41%, states are not meeting the needs of the rising electorate. Overall, the current top states with policies supporting the participation of young voters are: Washington (68%), Iowa (66%), District of Columbia (66%), Montana (61%), and North Carolina (61%). Among the top scorers, most offer Same Day Registration or online registration and some type of “convenience voting” (early vote or vote-by-mail) and over half include high school testing for civics education.

Research shows that voter registration is a significant barrier to young voter participation, and citizens ages 18 to 24 have the lowest rates of registration amongst all segments of the population. States that attempt to simplify the voter registration process and make it more accessible scored among the highest, including North Carolina, Delaware, and Washington. Their scores reflect the fact they offer voter-friendly policies such as Same Day Registration and online registration. No state, however, scored over 54% in the voter registration category as there are no states that currently employ “automatic registration” as individuals turn 18, nor do they have the right mix of accessible voter registration and fail-safe measures at the polls.

“The Voting System Scorecard compiled by Rock the Vote does an excellent job of shining a spotlight on the leaders and laggards in establishing rules that increase access and encourage voter participation,” said Dr. David Nickerson, an Associate Professor of American Politics at Notre Dame who studies youth participation in politics. “The data is drawn from credible sources and highlights specific areas where states can improve their policies. I hope that the scorecard helps to spark debates in state legislatures about the most cost effective means of ensuring all eligible and interested citizens are able to participate.”

“State officials and party leaders should be maximizing the opportunity we have now as a country to take advantage of new technologies and tactics that have proven to increase participation,” says Rock the Vote President Heather Smith. “Sadly, many politicians are not interested in expanding the electorate. Instead, they only want the people who voted them into office to show up at the polls. It’s up to us to call for innovation and demand a truly 21st century voting system if we want everyone to have the chance to cast a ballot.”

Scorecard Highlights:


  • The average national score is only 41% (8.6 points out of 21 total) with Washington state ranking highest at 68% and South Carolina and Virginia at 18% performing at the bottom of our list. Only 15 states scored above 50%.
  • The overall highest-scoring states:
    1. Washington (68%)
    2. Iowa (66%)
    3. District of Columbia (66%)
    4. Montana (61%)
    T-5. North Carolina (61%)
    T-5. Oregon (61%)
    T-7. Delaware (57%)
    T-7. Maine (57%)
    9. Kansas (57%)
    T-10. California (56%)
    T-10. Maryland (56%)
  • The overall lowest-scoring states:
    T-1. South Carolina (18%)
    T-1. Virginia (18%)
    3. Connecticut (20%)
    T-4. Oklahoma (23%)
    T-4. Tennessee (23%)
    6. Alabama (25%)
    T-7. Alaska (26%)
    T-7. Missouri (26%)
    9. Massachusetts (28%)
    T-10. Pennsylvania (30%)
    T-10. Rhode Island (30%)

Voter Registration

  • While no state currently offers full automatic registration, which would have the biggest impact on increasing access for young voters, several states do implement policies that make registration easier. Delaware, North Carolina, District of Columbia and Washington scored highest in the registration category at 54%. Their scores reflect the fact that they offer voter-friendly policies such as Same Day Registration (North Carolina) and online registration (Delaware, Washington).
  • Special consideration should be paid to North Dakota, which eliminated voter registration in 1951, allowing any citizen who shows up at the polls to vote if they sign an affidavit verifying their identity and address.

Casting a Ballot:

  • 11 states received 85% marks or higher for accepting a wide range of forms of identification, enforcing reasonable residency requirements, and offering early voting periods, absentee and overseas and military voting. Maine received a perfect score in this category for incorporating all of the above-mentioned policies.
  • Alabama, Missouri, Virginia and Michigan scored the lowest in the voting category, coming in at below 40%.

Young Voter Preparation

  • Three states – California, Delaware, and Maryland – scored perfect in the preparation category for offering pre-registration to 16- or 17-year-olds and teaching and testing civics education in high schools.

“We can all agree that keeping youth political participation high will always be important for our democracy,” said Harvard Institute of Politics Director Trey Grayson, who served as Secretary of State in Kentucky from 2004 to 2011. “The Institute of Politics has worked for many years to make registering to vote and voting easier, particularly for first-time voters. Simplifying voter registration and absentee voting procedures as well as improving voter education resources can help achieve this goal and nurture good habits of citizenship in our nation’s young people.”

Unfortunately, today, dozens of states are actively rolling back progress made in recent years by introducing restrictive laws that make it harder for young people to vote, such as narrowing photo identification requirements, eliminating Same Day Registration, and threatening third-party voter registration groups and their volunteers with steep fines.

For example, in North Carolina, a top five state, the legislature is considering a restrictive photo identification bill that does not include all student ID cards as well as other legislation that would eliminate Same Day Registration, limit the early voting period, and end pre-registration of high school students. Wisconsin, which dropped to 14th during the process of putting the scorecard together, recently enacted a photo ID bill that will only accept student identification cards that have signatures on them, a feature most universities don’t include.

The Millennial Generation comprises 45 million eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29. This is the largest and most diverse generation in our country. It is also the most urban, mobile, interconnected and technologically savvy generation in history. Yet while these young Americans are designing and implementing innovative ways to shape their communities – volunteering at record rates, using social media and technology to solve problems– they are too often blocked from the most fundamental element of civic participation: the right to vote. A 21st century voting system that makes it easier for young people to register to vote and more likely that they will cast their ballots is not optional, it is necessary.

“If the strength of our democracy can be measured by the participation of our citizens, then the inaccessibility of our voting system poses a serious threat to the long-term future of our democratic system,” said Smith.

The full 2011 Voting System Scorecard and supporting materials can be found here. It includes the rankings and detailed information on the set of criteria used to develop the analysis. The scorecard is based on data from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Demos, Education Commission of the States, FairVote, Long Distance Voter, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Defense. The metrics were further informed by research and analysis conducted by CIRCLE, Fair Elections Legal Network, Overseas Vote Foundation, and The Pew Center on the States. Additional research and analysis was done by Rock the Vote staff and interns.

Wednesday, June 8th at 1:00 EST/ 10:00 PST we will host a call to review the data and hear from young people affected by these measures. Call-in information is included below.

Audio Conference Call

Call-in #: 800-346-7359
Password: 458602

About Rock the Vote |

Rock the Vote’s mission is to engage and build political power for young people in our country. Using music, popular culture, new technologies and grassroots organizing for more than 20 years, Rock the Vote has registered more than 5 million young people, including a record-shattering 2.5 million registration downloads in the historic 2008 election. In 2010, Rock the Vote logged more than 300,000 voter registration downloads as part of the largest midterm election outreach strategy in our organization’s history. As the tidal wave of Millennial generation voters continues to establish its power at the polls, Rock the Vote will register millions more young people and make their voices heard. In 2011, Rock the Vote will lead the charge toward making our electoral process more accessible to young people through our high school civics program, Democracy Class, by rallying young people to stop unfair registration laws, and educating prospective 2012 candidates on how to incorporate young people in their campaigns.