How different are the rules for registration and voting in different states, (specifically the rules on early voting and the rules on access to polling places during voting), and how do those practices differ from the norms in other advanced democracies?

Background of this question:

After a wave of new rules being passed by (mostly) Republican state legislatures, and an attempt by Congress to pass the For The People act, there is much debate over reforming the US election rules; specifically about how to register to vote, and how to vote.

Democrats believe the 2021 Republican rules are voter suppression; Republicans argue that many Democrat-leaning states already have tighter rules (e.g. this paywalled Wall Street Journal op-ed by Karl Rove).

As a non-American, the state of US election rules looks like an inconsistent mess. My previous question on this topic was too opinionated, so I'm asking this question in an attempt to put the general state of US election rules in a factual context.

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    Please try to find a representative Republican op-ed that's not behind a paywall, or at least paraphrase or quote the relevant portion. (Note that quoting the Republican argument would also oblige quoting the Democratic view as well.)
    – agc
    Apr 7, 2021 at 21:55
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    This is now extremely broad as the elections vary a lot from state to state and there is no one standard.
    – Joe W
    Apr 7, 2021 at 21:56
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    @JoeW The question is about how variable election rules are. How can the existence of lots of variation be an objection to the question being posed?
    – matt_black
    Apr 7, 2021 at 23:23
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    @matt_black, Not all readers here assume that the opinions of Karl Rove must be infallible. The Q. lacks specific instances, (and cites a paywall source), which leaves SE readers guessing as to the merit of these assertions.
    – agc
    Apr 8, 2021 at 18:25
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    @CGCampbell There is a huge debate about whether US state rules about voting are fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory. You can't even start that debate unless you know what the differences are. If you think it doesn't matter that rules are different, then how do you rule out the state-level (and perfectly legal) laws that prohibited black people from voting in the 1960s in some states? And are current rules achieving the same effect in more subtle ways?
    – matt_black
    Apr 9, 2021 at 16:00

1 Answer 1


The answer to the first part of the question "How variable are US registration and voting rules" is fairly simple. There is great variability between states. I would not presume to quantify that variability. My go-to resource is the National Conference of State Legislatures research series here. On the intro page they say:

To assist lawmakers in reviewing elections policy decisions, NCSL provides 50-state research on many election law and procedural issues including:...

At the NCSL site, they will direct you to NCSL research links that will describe the differences between the 50 states in 47 different subject areas of electoral policy/laws.

As to the second part of your question, How do those compare with international norms?, the international "norms" tend to be guidelines. One such 'international' publication from NDI here states:

International standards for democratic elections are not prescriptive norms. They do not mandate that a particular election system or explicit laws be applied. Instead they are principles to guide the development and implementation of election systems, laws, policies and procedures concerning democratic election processes.

A description of world wide voter registration practices can be found at Wikipedia link. The article describes voter registration in 24 countries. A quick survey of those countries identified appears that the vast majority have "automatic" voter registration (For example registration at birth) or compulsory registration of all citizens / residents. Contrasting that international snapshot versus the US where (according to Pew Research Pew link) approximately 25% of the US population that is otherwise eligible to vote are not registered, rendering those persons unable to vote.

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    I think you are interpreting "norms" incorrectly. There are no international rules about how elections should be held. But there are typical practices about how voters are registered, how voting in person and by post are conducted and so on. That is what should be compared to the state-level rules in the US. The current US debate about whether changes in state rules are voter suppression or not is usually conducted without any data on variation inside the US or any comparison with typical practice elsewhere. Hence this question.
    – matt_black
    Apr 9, 2021 at 11:18
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    It would be helpful if you would identify an acceptable source/citation for these international norms. Otherwise comparison (with the US “mess”) is nearly impossible.
    – BobE
    Apr 9, 2021 at 12:18
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    This isn't that hard. Here is a good summary of the Key features for the UK; key features for Australia; key features for France. The key issues of interest are for national elections: how registration is done, who is eligible to vote and what the rules are for postal voting, plus some other details. On those alone the US is an outlier.
    – matt_black
    Apr 9, 2021 at 12:31
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    AS I said in the first comment here, you are misinterpreting "norms". There are no rules that force nations to do things a certain way. But there are common features in the electoral rules of many, if not most, advanced democracies. That is what I meant by "norm".
    – matt_black
    Apr 9, 2021 at 12:44
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    @matt_black the three "key features" articles you link to describe three very different approaches to voter registration, each of which differs from the US system. If you believe that there is a common "norm" to be inferred from those three systems, you should state in the question what you think it is.
    – phoog
    Apr 9, 2021 at 13:04

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