To be eligible to vote, a person must be a U.S. citizen and at least eighteen years of age. In a report to Congress, The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 on the Administration of Elections for Federal Office, 2003–2004 (June 30, 2005, http://www.eac.gov/docs/NVRA-2004-Survey.pdf), the Federal Election Commission states that in 2004 there were 221.3 million total citizens eighteen years and older in the United States. Of that number, 174.8 million, or about 79%, were registered to vote. However, a significant number of these registrants, 19.5 million, were considered inactive, meaning they had not recently participated in election voting and in many cases had moved to other jurisdictions. Each state determines for itself how long an individual may remain on the list of registered voters without voting.
Minority groups have traditionally trailed behind whites when it comes to registering to vote and actually voting. In 1993 Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA; PL 103-31), which became popularly known as the "Motor Voter Act," because it included provisions to enable driver's license applicants to simultaneously register to vote. According to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the NVRA was adopted "to enhance voting opportunities for every American and to remove the vestiges of discrimination which have historically resulted in lower voter registration rates of minorities and people with disabilities. The NVRA has brought new voices to the political process by making it easier for all Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote." In "Big Increase in New Voters" (October 15, 1997, http://www-cgi.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1996/news/9610/15/motor.voter/), CNN reported that in the two years after the law went into effect (in January 1995) nine million people had registered to vote.
In 2004 there were 151.4 million non-Hispanic whites age eighteen and over, and of that number, 111.3 million (73.5%) were registered to vote. Of 24.9 million African-Americans age eighteen and over in 2004, only sixteen million (64.4%) were registered to vote. Of 9.3 million Asian-Americans age eighteen and over, only 3.2 million (35%) were registered to vote in 2004. Of 27.1 million Hispanics age eighteen and over in 2004, only 9.3 million (34.3%) were registered to vote in 2004. (See Table 8.1.)
One reason registration levels are so low among Asian-Americans and Hispanics is that lower proportions of their voting-age population are citizens and eligible to vote. While 97.9% of white, non-Hispanic adults in the United States are citizens and 93.7% of adult African-Americans are citizens, only 67.5% of adult Asian-Americans and only 59.3% of adult Hispanics are citizens. Still, that does not explain entirely the low rate of voter registration among Asian-Americans and Hispanics; among Asian-American citizens, only 51.8% were registered in 2004, and among Hispanics only 57.9% were registered to vote.
Minority voter registration habits tend to vary by region. African-Americans in the Midwest are more likely to register to vote than African-Americans in other regions. Approximately 71.6% of African-American citizens in the Midwest were registered to vote in 2004, compared with 54.9% in the Northeast, 65.3% in the South, and 64.3% in the West. (See Table 8.2.)
Since the 1960s the number of minority registered voters in the South has increased. This increase is due, in
TABLE 8.1 Reported voting and registration, by race and Hispanic origin, November 2004 Adapted from "Table 4a. Reported Voting and Registration of the Total Voting-Age Population, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2004," U.S. Census Bureau, May 25, 2005, http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/voting/cps2004.html (accessed January 30, 2006) large part, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (PL 88-362) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (S 1564– PL 89-110). These laws removed voting restrictions and led to often volatile and dangerous voter registration campaigns conducted during the 1960s and 1970s. Before these changes many southern states enforced poll taxes, charging citizens for the right to vote and knowing that many poor African-Americans could not afford to pay. Some southern states had "grandfather clauses" that permitted voting rights only to those whose grandfathers had been able to vote. Many elderly African-Americans were the grandchildren of slaves who had not been able to vote, so these clauses restricted their rights. Furthermore, since they did not have the right to vote, their own children and grandchildren were also prevented from voting under the grandfather clauses. It took more than laws to open voting booths to southern African-Americans—it took marches, demonstrations, and the loss of a number of lives.
|Reported voting and registration, by race and Hispanic origin, November 2004
|State, sex, race, and Hispanic origin
||Population 18 and over
||Percent citizen (18+)
||Percent registered (18+)
||Percent voted (18+)
SOURCE: Adapted from "Table 4a. Reported Voting and Registration of the Total Voting-Age Population, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: November 2004," U.S. Census Bureau, May 25, 2005, http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/voting/cps2004.html (accessed January 30, 2006)
| White non-Hispanic alone
|Hispanic (of any race)
|White alone or in combination
| White non-Hispanic alone or in combination
|Black alone or in combination
|Asian alone or in combination
Asian-Americans living in the West were most likely to be registered to vote in 2004; still, only 38.2% were registered there. In the Northeast 32.1% of Asian-Americans were registered to vote, in the Midwest 31.7% were registered to vote, and in the South 30.5% were registered to vote. In the Northeast 38.2% of Hispanics were most likely to be registered to vote in 2004. Only 36% of Hispanics were registered in the South, 34.6% in the Midwest, and 31.6% in the West. (See Table 8.2.)