April 10, 2024

ICYMI: New Research On Why U.S. Lags on Voter Registration and Turnout Highlighted in Responsive Gov Briefing


Research Takes Deeper Look At What Practices and Policies the U.S. Can Adopt From Democracies Across the World With Stronger Civic Participation

For Immediate Release:

April 4, 2024



Washington, D.C. — On Tuesday, the Institute for Responsive Government held a briefing to discuss the findings of two new research papers analyzing voter registration and voter turnout in leading democracies abroad, using them as a case study for how the U.S. can address its lagging turnout and registration rates by improving elections infrastructure and administration. The briefing comes in the midst of a critical federal election year in the United States with roughly 244 million Americans eligible to vote this November.


Tova Wang, Senior Researcher in Democratic Practices at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, authored What Other Countries Can Teach Us About Turnout. The paper explores reasons other countries have higher participation among eligible voters than the United States, focusing on three structural reforms: proportional representation, compulsory (universal) voting systems, and concurrent elections. It analyzes how those systems contribute to higher turnout and create a more representative democracy in other countries, and asks whether these same policies could be adopted by U.S. policymakers as solutions to domestic turnout challenges.

Joshua Sellers, Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law, authored Comparative Voter Registration: Lessons from Abroad for Improving Access and Accuracy in the United States. Sellers contrasts the U.S. and countries with higher voter registration rates like Germany, Australia, and Canada, identifying two defining differences: increased centralization of voter registration (as opposed to the U.S.’s decentralized structure) and shifting the burden of responsibility for registering from eligible voters onto the government.

Responsive Gov’s policy and research director, Neal Ubriani, moderated the panel featuring Wang and Sellers. Here’s what panelists had to say about the importance of passing policies to increase voter registration and turnout in U.S. elections, including secure automatic voter registration, concurrent elections, and voting rights restoration policies:

“Anything where you’re going to have the wide spectrum of the electorate turning out and voting and participating, you’re going to get something back that is more reflective of the electorate and the population…The more people who are participating and are not being left out because of structural barriers and restrictions, you’re going to have a more reflective electorate, and ideally, in theory at least, then policies will also be more reflective of what the full spectrum of people in this country want and expect.”

-Tova Wang, Senior Researcher in Democratic Practices at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School

“Most states have some form of automatic voter registration (AVR) now…There’s some interesting innovations with regard to the form of AVR…It turns out there may be a meaningful difference between giving you the option [to decline at the DMV] and what’s known as a Secure AVR system, where you’re automatically registered to vote, and then later you receive a mailer giving you the option to opt out. This seems like a pretty minor distinction, but preliminary data suggest that can make a real difference in terms of how many people wind up registered. Colorado has this Secure AVR system, Oregon has it, eight other states and D.C. have this opt-out Secure AVR approach. That’s something it seems like other states should be emulating.”

-Joshua Sellers, Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law

“We can improve our election administration, and maybe as a larger project of increasing faith in government, increasing trust in government – showing government as a well-functioning entity that can make the process of voter registration and the process of voting easier for you as a citizen.”

-Neal Ubriani, Policy and Research Director at Responsive Gov

To speak with Neal Ubriani, Tova Wang, or Josh Sellers about their comparative research on voter registration and turnout, please contact dan@responsivegov.org.


The Institute for Responsive Government is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to ensuring state and federal governments work effectively for the very people they serve. IRG provides data, research, and expertise to elected officials in order to find practical policy solutions that make government systems more efficient, accessible, and responsive.