Finding DORI: Using Item Response Theory to Measure Difficulty of Registration in the U.S. and Its Impact on Voters

Date01 May 2022
Published date01 May 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(3) 336352
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211055050
Finding DORI: Using Item Response Theory
to Measure Diff‌iculty of Registration in the
U.S. and Its Impact on Voters
Joshua M. Jansa, Matthew Motta, and Rebekah Herrick
How do states differ in how diff‌icult they make voter registration, and what effect does this have on voters? We propose and
validate a new Diff‌iculty of Registration Index (DORI) calculated via an item response theory (IRT) model of f‌ive key dimens ions
of registration (automaticity, portability, deadline, mode, and preregistration) for each state from 2004 to 2020. Since 2004,
most states eased registration processes, with Democratic statehouses in racially diverse and young states leading the way.
Using CCES data, we f‌ind that DORI is associated with increased probability that voters expe rience problems registering and
failing to turnout (in both self-reported and validated turnout data). These effects are pronounced for young voters. This study
holds lessons for how restrictive registration procedures can change the shape of the electorate and make it harder to achieve
political equality.
Voter registration, youth turnout, state politics, item response theory, election laws
How do states differ in the diff‌icultly of voter registration
procedures, and what effect does this have on voters? Extant
research typically examines the effect of specif‌icregistration
dimensionson turnout, such as preregistration (e.g.,Holbein &
Hillygus, 2016), deadlines (e.g., Grumbach & Hill, 2020), or
portability (e.g., McDonald, 2008), or examines the overall
costs of voting on turnout,which does not distinguish between
registrationand voting procedures (e.g., Juelich& Coll, 2020).
Indeed, when scholars have attempted to measure registration
diff‌iculty, they have typicallydone so with indices that include
both registration and voting laws (e.g., Li, Pomante, and
Schraufnagel 2018;Hill & Leighley, 1999;King, 1994).
While these approaches have substantially advanced our un-
derstanding of voterregistration in the US, insights from these
studies may be limited by either their treatment of registration
laws in isolation or their inability to separate the effect of
registration diff‌iculty from voting diff‌iculty.
Measuring the overall level of registration diff‌iculty in
each state and over time is critically important for under-
standing voter turnout, particularly among young voters. We
know from the foundational works of Downs (1957) and
Riker and Ordeshook (1968) that higher costs of voting, or
how much time and resources one must commit to suc-
cessfully voting, should depress voter turnout. Registration is
a costly step in the process of voting that falls dispropor-
tionally on the young, as they are most likely to be new voters
or voters who have recently moved (e.g., Wol f‌inger &
Rosenstone, 1980). Confusing or diff‌icult procedures can
create registration problems for young voters; indeed, Mil-
lennials are more likely to report registration problems than
other generations (CCES, 2018). Since voting is habitual,
creating confusion for young voters could turn them off from
participating for their lifetime and can distort the electorate
(Plutzer, 2002;Coppock & Green, 2016;Fowler, 2017). In
competitive elections, such as the 2016 presidential election
where the outcome was determined by a fraction of voters in a
handful of states, or the 2020 Iowa second congressional race
where just 6 votes separated the winning and losing candi-
dates, any number of voters being turned away have the
potential to change election outcomes.
To examine the effect of registration procedures on voters,
we create a Diff‌iculty of Registration Index (DORI) using a
hybrid item response theory (IRT) model for f‌ive major di-
mensions of registrationautomaticity, deadline, mode,
portability, and preregistration. These dimensions govern if
Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joshua M. Jansa, Oklahoma State University, 233 Social Sciences and
Humanities Bldg, Stillwater, OK 74074, USA.
an eligible voter must take action to register, when and how
an eligible voter can register, whether the registration is valid
across the state rather than a specif‌ic domicile, and whether
registration is available to voters who are currently underage.
These standards are well-established in the literature as key
dimensions of registration procedures. The IRT approach
allows us to take into account the unique contribution of each
dimension to the overall diff‌iculty of registration procedures
in each state and over time.
This approach gives us leverage on variation across the
states in registrationdiff‌iculty and how stateswith higher levels
of diff‌iculty can cause problems for voters that prevent them
from casting a ballot.We f‌irst identify the major dimensions of
registration laws across the states and then describe how we
use these dimensions to create DORI scores for each state
using IRT. Wethen show how DORI scores have changedover
time, with many sta tes making registration eas ier since 2004.
Wevalidate DORI by assessing itsstate-level correlates and by
comparing its predictive performance to an additive index of
registrationlaws. We use DORIto explore the consequences of
registration diff‌iculty for voters. We f‌ind that voters in states
with higherDORI scores are more likely to report experiencing
problems registering to vote, and are less likely to vote as a
result. Troublingly, we f‌ind that these effects are most pro-
nounced for youngvoters. In all, the creation of DORIand our
demonstration of its impact on voters provide a new tool for
studying voter registration in the U.S. federal system and its
electoral impact.
Five Dimensions of Voter Registration
Procedures in the States
In the U.S. federal system, voter registration laws are mostly
determined by state governments. National laws such as the
Voting Rights Act of 1964 (VRA), the National Voter
Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), and the Help America
Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) create basic voting and registrat ion
regulations across the U.S., but state prerogatives have
created signif‌icant spatial and temporal variation in f‌ive
parameters, or dimensions, of voter registration laws. These
dimensions are automaticity (i.e., whether action is required
for voters to become registered), mode (i.e., how a state
allows voters to register), deadline (i.e., whether and when
voters must be registered before election day), portability
(i.e., whether votersregistration is honored state-wide), and
preregistration (i.e., whether registration procedures are
available to otherwise eligible voters who are underage).
We identif‌ied these f‌ive dimensions after a review of the
extant research. Our goal was to identify the major dime n-
sions of registration procedures and then to use this infor-
mation to create a single measure of registration diff‌iculty in
each state over time. We used two criteria to determine what
constitutes an important dimension of voter registration law.
First, the dimension and the underlying laws that shape it
must be primarily focused on registration procedures and not
on determining votingprocedures, including who is eligibleto
vote. Second, it must shape the steps that individual voters
must take to fullyregister, and not governhow organizations or
political parties that may seek to register voters.
these dimensions do not capture all possible voter registration
laws, scholars focus on these dimensions above all others in
determining how diff‌icult it is for an eligible individual to
registerto vote (Leighley & Nagler,2014;Holbein & Hillygus,
2016;Fowler, 2017;Yu, 2 01 9). Below, we def‌ine each di-
mension andsummarize its importance for shapingregistration
costs for individual voters.
Whether action is required for voters to become registered is a
key dimension that varies across the states. As of 2020, eighteen
had instituted mechanisms for automatically registering
eligible citizens to vote (NCSL, 2019a). These AVR provisions
allow state agencies to share with election administrators the
basic information they gather from eligible citizens. Election
administrators use the information to create or update voter
registration records. In this way, voters are registered without
having to spend time and resources completing the specif‌ic
actions required to become registered.AVRisthusviewedasa
waytoreducethecostsofvoting(Li et al., 2018). AVR is a
relatively new innovation, so few comprehensive studies have
been conducted on their effect, though McGhee and Romero
(2020) f‌ind that AVR laws greatly increases the voter registration
rates among Latinos, and modestly increase voter registration
rates among Asian Americans and young people as well.
The mode dimension captures how a state allows a voter to
register. All stateswhether due to the NVRA or by their
own regulationshave paper voter registration forms that
can be submitted in-person or by mail. Arizona was the f‌irst
state to allow voters to register online in 2002. By 2020, 40
states had enacted online voter registration (OVR), while 10
states kept paper-only procedures (NCSL, 2019b). OVR is a
popular mode of registration because it makes registration
accessible on laptops or mobile devices, and it decreases
administrative costs to the states (Hicks et al., 2016). OVR is
associated with increased turnout especially among young
voters (Yu, 2019).
Whether and when voters must be registered before election
day is another key dimension of variation in registration laws
across the American states. Some states require registration to
be completed before election day, typically 1030 days prior.
Most statesdeadlines have not changed over time, though
many states have begun adopting election day registration
Jansa et al. 337

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