Tenants: Why don't you vote? (© Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

© Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

With time running out in some states to register to vote in the presidential election, see if you know which of the following questions is more crucial for renters:

A) Will you take the time to vote on Nov. 6?

B) Are you registered to vote?

The answer is "B." The distinction is particularly important for tenants, who have just as much of a stake in election outcomes as do homeowners. (Even if Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said in 2010 that the nation's founders were on to a good idea in allowing only property owners to vote, "because if you're a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community.")

For years, the massive population of tenants — one-third of Americans and climbing — has turned out at a markedly lower rate than homeowners. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, 52% of renters voted, compared with 68% of homeowners, a sizable gap that, if closed, could turn elections. A back-of-the-envelope calculation using census figures shows that if tenants voted at the same rate as homeowners, an additional 11.2 million tenants would cast ballots in the upcoming November election.

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For years, the reason for low tenant turnout has been chalked up to demographic factors, such as lifestyle or income — really just a polite way of saying, "Renters don't care." That's because the demographics of tenants tend to mirror the demographics of those with low voter-turnout rates:

Lower income: The median income of tenants is about half the median income of homeowners, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Low-income citizens register and vote at lower rates. In 2008, according to census data, 80% of people with incomes of more than $100,000 were registered and 73% voted; only 64% of those with incomes of less than $20,000 were registered and 52% voted.

Less education: People with less education are less likely to own a home, and voting trends again correlate. In 2008, only 50.5% of eligible voters with less than a high-school diploma had registered to vote, compared with 64.1% of those with a high-school diploma and 81.2% of those with a four-year college degree, according to census data.

Younger: The 2008 election saw near-record youth turnout, which was credited with helping to secure victory for President Barack Obama. Even so, among 18- to 29-year-olds, only 51% of eligible voters went to the polls, compared with 69% of those between the 45 and 64.

More mobile: Tenants are far more likely to move than homeowners. Because of that, theorists have surmised, they are less likely to put down roots and become civically engaged.

Oops, I completely forgot to register
But evidence is mounting that it is the last point — the fact that people move — that is key, and that past assumptions about why tenants don't vote may be incorrect.

Political scientists who have been re-evaluating reams of voting data have found that whether a tenant votes is less about political will and more about the cumbersome and at times elusive process of registering.

Think about it: The last time you moved, which tenants obviously do far more frequently than homeowners, at exactly what point in the unpacking process did you jump and say: "I've got to go re-register to vote at my new address!"

"Registration itself is really the red tape and the stumbling block right now," says Liz Kennedy, a counsel with Demos, a public policy research group that advances voter rights. "There are so many different jurisdictions that administer elections that a lot of this can be perhaps somewhat tricky to navigate."

It isn't until an election draws near that many people even remember that they need to re-register at their new address. Then it's up to them to find out how, where and by when. Recent, tighter voter ID laws present further complications, while threatening to disenfranchise millions of elderly, minority and low-income citizens.

There's still time to register to vote
Meanwhile, voters may hear or read little about legal protections afforded citizens, including those designed to help people who have recently moved.

For example, under the National Voting Rights Act, if you did not move out of your jurisdiction (for example, New York City is in one jurisdiction), you are allowed to cast your ballot at your old polling place.

Furthermore, many states allow anyone who has moved within the state to vote at the new polling place, even if that person hasn't yet registered to vote at his new address. A voter can update his address on the day of the election. Many states allow voters to register online.

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Those laws alone affect millions of tenants. Within the past year, almost 20 million voting-age adults moved in this country. Of those, two-thirds moved within their county and 84% moved within their state.

"So all is not lost when people move, and they should certainly not think, 'Oh, gee, now I can't vote at all.' They should instead call their Board of Elections," Kennedy said.

States determine their own voter-registration deadlines. The earliest are 30 days before the election, or Oct. 7 for the upcoming presidential election. Eleven states, including swing states Iowa and New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia allow voters to register up to and including Election Day. North Dakota has no registration requirements.

To find voter-registration details for your state and jurisdiction, you can call the 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) hotline or go to www.866OurVote.org. You can also see deadlines and other information at VoteSmart.org.

If you register, you will vote
But back to bucking the old stereotypes about why tenants don't vote.

It turns out that once renters register to vote, they are just as likely as homeowners — or those who haven't moved — to cast a ballot. About 90% of registered voters show up to vote for president.

"A lot of our under-represented demographic, these groups are highly mobile. But if you look at the turnout rate among the registered voters, they turn out at the same rates," says Youjin Kim, apolicy analyst with Demos.

A 2011 academic study of 1.8 million voter-registration records found that after about age 22, people were more likely to register only because they were more likely to have been at one address for a longer period of time. The authors found a correlation with the registration process itself, not with a lack of resources or interest.

"So the argument that the younger you are, the less ties that you have to the community, and the less interested you are, is not true," Kim says.

A 2000 study by a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, found that while voter-turnout rates were highly affected by the act of moving, it didn't matter how far away the voter moved. In other words, it wasn't changing communities that mattered, but simply changing addresses. So much for the assumption that low voter turnout meant people hadn't established roots in their community, the author concluded.

Furthermore, says Demos, when registration is uncomplicated, people vote. The five states with the highest voter-turnout rates all have same-day registration.

Just give tenants the forms?
In Madison, Wis., where half the city households are renters, one elected official introduced a novel idea to help streamline voter registration for city clerks, who were getting inundated with applications on Election Day.

Since so many people move into new apartments in mid-August, just as election season is heating up, why not require that landlords give all new tenants voter-registration application and information sheets?

As in other states, efforts have been under way to clamp down on voter registration. And Wisconsin does not ask about voter registration when drivers apply for a license, as many states do under the National Voter Registration Act. Really, though, Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci says she just wanted to reduce government costs and ease clerical workload by preventing tens of thousands of registration applications from landing on Nov. 6.

Since the law went into effect this summer, city clerks have been receiving about 1,000 applications a day, a far more efficient stream to handle. Local government provides the paperwork to landlords, who then include it in the packet of information they already provide tenants.

"We're trying to get the forms to people so they can come in in a staggered fashion," she says. The clerk's staff "is able to manage that and get everyone into the poll books."

Minnesota, which has had same-day voter registration since 1974, has the country's highest rate of voter turnout: 75% in 2008, compared with 64% nationally.

"It doesn't matter to me how you're voting; it matters to me that we have accessibility for individuals to go vote," Maniaci says. "I don't understand how we got to the point as a country where discouraging voting is a positive policy goal to have."