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Do Early Voter Registration Deadlines Hurt Voter Turnout?

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National elections get a lot of attention and press, but local ones? Not so much. And some folks say it’s those local races that have a bigger impact on your everyday life.

There are a slew of candidates running for mayor in Albuquerque. And the last two city elections here saw low voter turnout. The deadline to register to vote in October is the end of day on Tuesday, Sept. 5, but Viki Harrison of Common Cause says that’s way too early. 

She spoke with KUNM’s Marisa Demarco about local elections and making it easy for the electorate to participate in them.

HARRISON: Twenty-eight days before an election, you have a lot of people who haven’t made up their mind yet and who may not even know that they want to vote yet. Those of us that vote every single year don’t understand that. But the people who do turn out to vote, we’ve seen the low numbers, particularly in a municipal election. So there’s no practical reason to have it cut off that early.

KUNM: When the registration deadline is early, who’s most affected by that?

HARRISON: People who are not already involved. People who, that we like to say, are rising American electorate, people who are starting to register to vote. So we’re talking about people of color, youth and single women, who fall into this category of ‘We’re starting to register to vote,’ but they don’t know the rules.

And you’re also talking about sometimes people who don’t have time and don’t know, for example, in New Mexico that we have online voter registration. Those of us who work in this feel like everybody knows everything because we’ve been dealing with it for so many years, but there’s a lot of people that are out there busy living their lives and don’t understand all these technical nuances.

KUNM: Would changing the system make things harder in county clerk’s offices?

HARRISON: You know we feel like now that we have online voter registration, so people have access from their computers to register at any time during the year. And the problem is, whether you do a registration three days ahead of time or cut it off 28 days ahead of time, what you run into is people don’t register until the last minute. You can look at data across the country for the last decade and the spikes of registration right before a presidential election is always huge.

So I think the onus is on us as advocates as well as our county clerk’s offices and our election officials to do a better job throughout the year getting people to register so there’s not an onslaught. That onslaught is happening everywhere no matter what the day is.

KUNM: More people are aware of national elections when they’re happening, but sometimes local elections just kind of slip by. Mayor, city council, school board, county commission, sheriff—what does it mean for local government that so many people might not vote?

HARRISON: I think people just feel overwhelmed. There’s so many different elections out there, and we worked on a bill last year that would consolidate some elections. So, you know, you have your presidential elections and then every single November you have an election. So you could combine school boards and municipal elections, for example, or combine others. I think that would help.

And I think people just don’t really understand how much control local officials have over their lives.

KUNM: How would pushing back the registration deadline change turnout in these local elections?

HARRISON: We think it would bring more people to the polls. I mean, think about it: If you are not paying attention in August, which many people aren’t, come September 15, you see a forum and you go to register to vote, and you can’t vote. I mean you’re always going to have more people, and more people voting is always good for democracy. And when we only have a small percentage of people that are actually giving their opinion and putting their faith—then when you look at that, say 20 percent voted in the last mayoral election, well that was between three candidates. So you split up all that vote, and nobody’s walking away with 10 percent of the city.

So if you have 1 percent of the vote it just does not work for democracy. We’ve got to have people showing up. And the more people that show up, whether it’s a school board election or a municipal election, the better for our city. 

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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