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Lessons from 2016: Try same-day voter registration, rethink Electoral College, report says

Slightly more than 60 percent of eligible U.S. voters went to the polls in 2016, according to an analysis by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Election Project, released Thursday. States with same-day voter registration and those that were battlegrounds in the presidential contest had better turnouts.

States with the highest voter turnout in 2016 offered same-day registration or were targeted battlegrounds in the tight presidential election, according to an analysis released Thursday by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project.

The six highest-ranking states have rules that allow eligible voters to register at the polls or update their information there before casting a ballot. In order, they were: Minnesota (74.8 percent), Maine (72.8 percent), New Hampshire (72.5 percent), Colorado (72.1 percent), Wisconsin (70.5 percent), and Iowa (69 percent).

All but Minnesota, the leader for the second presidential election in a row, also were targeted by the presidential candidates.

This was the first report on 2016 turnout to be based on certified election returns.

Last year's laggards were: Hawaii (43 percent), West Virginia (50.8 percent), Texas (51.6 percent), Tennessee (52 percent), and Arkansas (53.1 percent). These five states were at the bottom of the rankings for the third consecutive presidential election. None was a toss-up in the presidential race, and all cut off registration three weeks to a month before Election Day.

Nationally, 60.2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, up from the 58.6 percent who voted in 2012, the report concluded.

Turnout in states with same-day registration increased by an average of 7 percentage points compared with states that did not offer the convenience, the report found. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allow voter registration at polling stations.

"We continue to see higher voter participation in states with same-day registration," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who directs the U.S. Elections Project, a national repository of voter statistics. "The data show clearly [it] is one of the most effective strategies states can implement to increase turnout."

The report, "America Goes to the Polls 2016," was based on recently certified election returns from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nonprofit VOTE, based near Boston, works to help 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations organize nonpartisan projects to encourage voting. This is the researchers' sixth election report.

Pennsylvania ranked 20th in voter turnout in 2016, with 64 percent of those eligible casting ballots. While the state has more restrictive registration rules, it was a swing state, with both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump targeting it. Trump carried the state, the first GOP nominee to do so since 1988.

Voter turnout in contested states has ranged from 5 to 8 percentage points higher than in non-battleground states in each of the last five presidential elections, the report said. There were 14 competitive states last year.

In 2016, four of those battleground states – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – alone absorbed 71 percent of campaign ad spending and 57 percent of candidate appearances. Only 1 percent of ad spending and 5 percent of campaign visits happened in states where the results were preordained by partisan voting history, the report said.

Yet only 35 percent of eligible voters lived in a battleground state. The rest, about 147 million voters, lived in 36 states and the District of Columbia that were not contested, and thus were mostly bypassed by the major party campaigns.

The report urges more states to adopt same-day voter registration, automatic and online voter registration, and policies to increase electoral competition, such as Electoral College changes.

"Voter participation is at the core of active citizenship and a healthy democracy," said Brian Miller, executive director of Nonprofit VOTE.