Next to November 8, the most significant day in the electoral calendar this cycle may be October 11. That’s the deadline for voter registration in 16 states and territories, representing some two-fifths of the US population. The list includes seven of the top 10 states in terms of electoral votes, and several of the most hotly contested campaign battlegrounds, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In the 2012 election, some 66 million eligible voters, or 30 percent of the total, were unable to vote due to lack of registration. Unregistered voters account for the bulk of the US’s comparatively low voter turnout, as 90 percent of citizens who register typically go on to vote. Compared with registered voters, those who don’t register are more likely to be young, lower-income and people of color.
Despite this—or perhaps because of this—corporate media have done little to alert the public about the upcoming deadline, or about voter registration in general. A search of Nexis transcripts from the three major broadcast news outlets—ABC, CBS and NBC—turned up no stories on any news show talking about registration deadlines over the past month. (These networks do have information about voter registration deadlines on their websites—but people looking online for information about the deadlines are people who don’t need to be informed that there are deadlines.) Considering the way shows like Meet the Press and This Week and Face the Nation are obsessed with the minutiae of campaign strategy, the failure to discuss the critical factor of the voter registration timeline seems like a major gap.
Public broadcasting, with its ostensible mandate to expand democracy, doesn’t do any better. A month of PBS NewsHour transcripts didn’t reveal any coverage of voter registration deadlines, while NPR had one piece (Weekend Edition, 9/10/16) about legal wrangling over Texas’s repressive voter law in which Ashley Lopez mentioned, “While the court figures all this out, groups are frantically trying to spread the word before the state’s voter registration deadline on October 11.”
On cable, Fox News talked surprisingly little about deadlines to register, considering that bringing in new white voters is thought to be key to a successful Trump campaign. The only reference was in a report from Pennsylvania (Fox on the Record, 10/5/16) in which Mike Emanuel said, “Hillary Clinton encouraged folks to get their neighbors and their friends to register to vote ahead of the deadline.”
CNN, on the other hand, brought up the issue of registration deadlines in general, and the October 11 deadline in particular, in several reports—mostly on October 4 and 5, as though the cable news channel had suddenly discovered the importance of registering voters to the electoral process. As senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny put it on Inside Politics (10/4/16):
Aside from the debates, October 11, maybe the most important date on the calendar between now and actual Election Day. That is the last day to register people to vote in several key states including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Which raises the question of why CNN hadn’t brought up this “most important date” before October 4.
The only national TV journalist we found who not only acknowledged the importance of voter registration deadlines but actually encouraged people to register to vote was MSNBC‘s Rachel Maddow (9/27/16), who put up alphabetical lists with the deadline in each state, telling viewers to find their own local date. But, she said:
It’s better to be safe than sorry and get registered now when you’re thinking of it, than hoping you’ll remember to do it some other later time. Just do it.
No other prominent TV figure we saw was willing to depart from the norm of journalistic passivity by directly urging their audience to take part in the democratic process.
You can find out the deadline and register to vote in your state here.
Research assistance: Rohit Chandan