In Europe I lived in different countries and I was always able to vote (national and local elections in my home country, and local elections elsewhere) without having to do anything beforehand: the day of the election I present myself to the polling place, I show my ID and whatever document I might have received by snail-mail in the previous days, the personnel at the polling place checks that I am in the voting list for that place, and I am able to proceed.

The only exception is when I vote in a different place from where I generally live, and in these occasions I have to warn the town hall/government a few days in advance.

What makes this inapplicable in the US? What is the registration needed for?

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    I don't understand voter registration in the US either, however, doesn't the fact that you have a national ID means the government can automatically register you to vote once you are eligible? Isn't that how the voting lists you mention are created in the first place?
    – yannis
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 11:39
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    @Federico voter registration in the US is generally done once, too, each time you move, not for each election.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 12:48
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    @dannyf EU citizens have the right to vote in local elections in their place of residence. So there's no fraud: Italians are allowed to vote in elections in Germany or the Netherlands if they reside there.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 12:50
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    @phoog that is something that was not clear to me. thanks!
    – Federico
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 13:46
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    "the personnel at the polling place checks that I am in the voting list for that place" How do you get on the voting list? How can they tell you're not on some other voting list, say in a different constituency in the same election?
    – user316117
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 21:46

4 Answers 4


In European countries it is usually mandatory to register your place of residence with the local municipality. Births and deaths also need to be reported. That means that the local municipalities have a complete list of their residents with enough information about them to know who is eligible for voting. So they can just send every person with suffrage their voting papers prior to the election.

Not so in the United States.

There is no duty to register your place of residence. That means if you want to be eligible for voting, you need to register voluntarily.

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    This is also true in the UK. Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 12:46
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    @JeopardyTempest I believe that Steve's comment was intended to convey that the UK more closely resembles the US in this regard. There is no mandatory registration with the municipality, so there is a need for voters to register to vote.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 17:46
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    @reirab But you're not required to have a driver's license or state id, so its not really the same. You're keeping your driver's license information or state issued id information accurate, which is different then just informing the government that you live somewhere for no other reason than they want to know.
    – Andy
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 0:46
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    As to why registration is voluntary, it has to do with the philosophy that citizens should never be arbitrarily forced to do anything without a compelling reason, and also that government records of any kind could be used for oppression. The same objections apply to many other ideas like gun registries. The nature of the federal system comes into play as well. It may seem odd that the states separately manage elections, even for national offices. Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 5:22
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    @Mehrdad No, they don't. They deliver mail to a building, but when you move you never inform the USPS. You just tell people what your address is, and people write your name above the address. You can tell them to forward your mail if you move for your convince, but even that is for a limited time (and presumably expires after a time). But if i let a friend stay with me for a few weeks, and his friend knows, they can address mail to him at my address and it makes no difference to the USPS.
    – Andy
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 18:27

I will add to Phillipp's comment. Registration in the US is basically on the honor system. Sometimes you need ID, sometimes you don't. You can register online in many locales. Sometimes you just need a utility bill. Obviously this in no way confirms identity or voter eligibility.

What happens next is that the name is checked against federal databases, like our Social Security System to see if you exist (most Americans are in that system but it is not required), the FBIs for criminality (some ex-felons are not allowed to vote), etc. etc. There's even a database for dead people, the Social Security Death Index, that's notoriously shoddy. In Minnesota, 8 databases are used to determine voter eligibility and identity.

An issue does arise with same-day voter registration in Minnesota, meaning you register and vote in a federal election the same day. None of the checks occur prior to voting. Statute allows 42 days for registration processing. Requiring provisional balloting in these instances for such votes is a partial step in reducing voter fraud. Provisional ballots come under heightened scrutiny if the vote totals are within the range requiring mandatory recounts, usually just a few percentage points. But historically, 15-20% of the total voters avail themselves of same day voter registration. Other states have this practice too.

So the purpose of voter registration with massive loopholes like Minnesota's? Seems to me to give a patina of respectability over a very flawed system.

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    if I read your post correctly, you're telling me how registration works, not why it is necessary in the US.
    – Federico
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 13:06
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    @Federico it's necessary to prevent fraud, unfortunately that's not the way it's designed.
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 13:13
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    @KDog You could mention the cases of Vermont, Oregon, California, and West Virginia, all of which have some form of automatic voter registration and are meant to simplify the process for voters as well as provide a certain level of accountability to the registration process itself. You could also mention that many same-day voter registrations don't submit a ballot when they vote, they submit a provisional ballot that, if a recount occurs or is necessary, receive stricter scrutiny, and is another layer of protection against fraud.
    – user5155
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 13:40
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    @JeffLambert Not familiar with automatic registration, and the provisional ballots usage point is a good one.
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 13:47
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    @JeffLambert added that point about provisional ballots. Do you have source material on automatic registration?
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 16:21

Article One, Section 4, Clause 1 of the US Constitution:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Congress has enacted laws to ensure some level of regularity in federal elections ("Motor Voter" registration, elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, campaign finance restrictions, etc.), but most decisions are left up to individual states for both political reasons and as an expression of federalism.

This is why each state has different laws regarding registration deadlines, photo ID requirements, and even which parties you can register under. It's not a lack of technical ability or citizenship data (most men 18–25 are automatically registered for selective service, for instance, largely by automatically registering eligible men when they renew drivers' licenses and other important documents). There's a strong political interest in voter turnout, and political parties use as much space as Congress allows to ensure they retain an advantage in elections. A couple of the (many) examples you can find:

  1. Colorado automatically mails a ballot to all of their registered voters in part because people who are less likely to vote in person are more likely to vote for Democrats.
  2. Texas' voter ID law disallows some forms of ID (such as student IDs) that are more likely to be held by young people, but loosens rules surrounding IDs of elderly voters who are more likely to support Republicans.

Edit: My point is that automatically registering voters requires federal assistance, but states largely have the right to make their own rules (unless they're so one-sided that they're unconstitutional). Political parties on the state and national levels prefer to limit the federal government's involvement because it would restrict their ability to influence elections.

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    "There's a strong political interest in voter turnout" - I doubt that. Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 14:09
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    While this contains interesting information, I don't see how it answers the question, namely "Why is registration necessary, when European countries can do without?".
    – sleske
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 9:22

the day of the election ... and I am able to proceed.

It could have been made more clear to your readers if you had indicated that "the election" you were talking about were local elections - presumably means that it is not about the election of national leaders.

I think in most US locales local residence is all that's required for that as well.

The national IDs being discussed are in the context of a federal election - the presidential election of 2016 for example. It would be interesting to hear your experience, as an Italian citizen, to vote for the presidents of the Netherlands or Germany.

In the US, a lack of uniform national ID, and some states' laws prohibiting ID checks and others states issuing state IDs (without citizenship proof) have made voter fraud possible, and likely. the latest example came out of a political science researcher Old Dominion suggested that Hillary may have received as many as 800K votes from illegal aliens -> as many as 6%+ of non-citizens voted in the last presidential election.

and if you go through his earlier papers on non-citizen voting, you will find a large body of literature / researches in this area and it is fairly conclusive that non-citizens do vote in national elections consistently.

I think so far the trump administration has not provided much basis to say that this is a widespread problem. on the other hand, his political opponents, including the media, are equally baseless to call trump's claim "false" - as they don't have any facts to dispute his claim either.

With that, it makes sense to get to the bottoms of it, and see just how big / small a problem illegal votes (including non-citizen votes) are.

  • 6
    You seem to assume that in Europe, the processes for local and national elections differ as significantly as they do in the US. Why is that? You may, of course, focus your answer to US national elections if you wish, since that process is what the US national ID debate is about, but your commentary on European local and national elections seems a bit off, if not completely irrelevant.
    – yannis
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 17:50
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    Do you have a link to that Old Dominion study? As far as I know, it was about improper voter registrations, not improperly cast votes, so the suggestion that thousands of aliens have voted (whether lawfully present in the US or otherwise) is entirely unfounded.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 17:59
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    @dannyf In most European countries all elections (local, state, federal) work the same way. In The Netherlands I just show up with an ID of my choice (ID cards are both compulsory and free of charge) and vote, they know exactly who I am. In Australia voting is compulsory (not showing up to vote will get you fined) and all voters are registered, which you only do once. Becoming a voter while being a non-citizen is pretty much impossible.
    – Nic
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 2:37
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    It could have been made more clear to your readers if you had indicated that "the election" you were talking about were local elections - presumably means that it is not about the election of national leaders. – I cannot speak for the asker, but yes, national elections work that way too.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 9:33
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    ...as they don't have any facts to dispute his claim either. It's much harder to come up with "facts" about a thing if the thing didn't happen or was negligible. The 800K figure is (1) extrapolated from a 2014 study, (2) based on anonymous survey/poll responses and (3) estimated based on assumptions that are questionable. It's a maximum estimate, and the same data and assumptions says Trump would have received a minimum of 200K votes from non-citizens (and nobody is mentioning that side of it). Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 10:38

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