Hillary's Game-Changing Voting Reform

Clinton’s transformative plan to automatically register voters at 18 could add 50 million to the rolls, cut costs, and curb the potential for fraud. All candidates, from both parties, should tell us what they would do to improve our democracy.

June 10, 2015

Cross-posted on Politico Magazine

Last week, in Houston, Texas, Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced the wave of restrictive new voting laws enacted by Republican legislatures around the country. Those of us who aren’t wild about disenfranchising eligible citizens welcomed Clinton’s passionate defense. It’s been years since a major candidate made democracy reform a central issue. But the most important thing about the speech was her embrace of a transformative policy innovation: automatic, universal registration of voters once they turn 18. It’s an idea that’s already begun to gain ground across the country, building on reforms with bipartisan support. Now we have a chance to take it even further.

In a campaign season criticized for a dearth of big new ideas, this one’s a doozy.

Why is it so important? Between a third and a quarter of all eligible Americans remain unregistered and therefore cannot cast a ballot. Automatic, permanent registration as Clinton proposes would add up to 50 million to the rolls. It would cost less than today’s paper-clogged system. And it would curb the potential for fraud. Amid rising political inequality and declining voter interest, this could give the ailing political system a much-needed jolt of citizen energy.

Our ramshackle voter registration system disenfranchises more people by accident than even the harshest new laws do on purpose. To be sure, some people just don’t want to register and never will. Call them the “Don’t vote—it will only encourage them” caucus. But many others fall off the rolls, or become tangled in the mess of the current system. According to a 2012 Pew Center on the States study, 24 million entries are either invalid or inaccurate. Many eligible voters are under the impression that when they file a change of address form with the U.S. Postal Service, their voter registration information automatically updates. And, yes, plenty of dead people have stayed registered. All these flaws risk undermining election integrity. 

While we deposit checks on our iPhones and push a button to start our cars, many states and localities still rely on piles of paper records to maintain their voting lists. Civil servants who perform data entry from paper-based applications must interpret citizens’ chicken scratch handwriting. Typos are common. And today’s system poorly reflects today’s hypermobile society. More than 26 million voting-age Americans move each year, and because of residency requirements, many of them fall off the rolls, even if they move within the same state.

These glitches are a chief cause of polling place confusion and delay—which lead to long lines on Election Day. In all, according to the definitive study by Cal Tech and MIT, some 3 million eligible citizens were unable to vote in 2008 because of registration problems. Many took time from their families or jobs, only to learn they were nowhere to be found in the voter rolls. The problems aren’t going away: The 2012 election saw a 40 percent jump in the number of in-person voters who experienced registration problems.

Other democracies do it better than we do. In 2009, the Brennan Center studied voting systems in 16 democratic countries. The United States was one of only four that put the responsibility for registering solely on the voter. Great Britain, Canada, Germany, France all boast registration rates above 90 percent. Ours were as much as 30 percent lower. That’s one kind of American exceptionalism we don’t want to boast about.

Tinkering won’t suffice. It’s time to modernize the way we run elections, and bring them into the 21st century. That’s where a system of universal, automatic registration would come in.

So how would Clinton’s proposal work? From now on, the government rather than the voter would be responsible for making sure all eligible citizens are registered to vote and that rolls are accurate and complete. Citizens would register at 18 and stay on the rolls for their entire lives. All would be given the chance to opt out; nobody would be registered against their will.

Clinton has not released details of her plan, so we don’t know for sure what she’d enact, but there are several innovative reforms that could achieve complete and accurate voting logs through collaboration between various government agencies. Universities, for example, could automatically register 18 year olds, Medicare could do the same for seniors. And the U.S. Postal Service could let the voter registration agency know when someone has moved.

Some states are ahead of the curve. Ever since the Brennan Center published its proposal for Voter Registration Modernization in 2007, a package that included permanent and portable registration, at least two dozen states have implemented voter registration reforms—moving to online registration, for example. High school “pre-registration” programs, in which young people register as future voters and are automatically signed up when they turn 18, are already in place in at least 10 states.

The biggest breakthrough on this front—and one that Clinton mentioned in her speech—came in March in Oregon, when Gov. Kate Brown signed a law that automatically registered to vote anyone 18 and up who obtained a driver’s license (unless that person chose to opt out). The move is likely to add at least 300,000 voters to the rolls right away, and could end up giving Oregon the highest registration rate in the country. Other states could expand on the model, moving beyond the DMV. When someone receives Social Security benefits, pays state taxes or applies for disability benefits, her information could be passed along for registration or updates to an existing record.  

States should keep pressing forward with initiatives like these on their own. But, as Clinton suggested, there needs to be one national standard—a mandate to ensure that all eligible voters are registered no matter where they live. A comparable proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. John Lewis would set core federal standards while giving some flexibility to states. In 2002, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) took such an approach. It required states to move to electronic voting, and provided federal funds to help them do it. This would be a similar technological upgrade—voting 2.0—this time applied to registration.

What are the risks? Some worry non-citizens would inadvertently find themselves registered, even voting, without realizing they cannot—putting them at risk of deportation. So it’s hugely important to make sure that the lists omit non-citizens. Others might worry about cost. So far, the move to digital records has proved very cost efficient in states that have tried it. Every so often, someone will grumble that this plan would—somehow—open the way to fraud. But that rationale quickly crumbles. After all, digital government lists, checked and rechecked, are likely to be more accurate than the names submitted by voter registration groups or private citizens. For those really worried about “Mickey Mouse” registering to vote, don’t worry—he’s not on the government list, even in Orlando (where he lives).

In fact, automatic voter registration gives both left and right what they demand. It enfranchises more people. And it protects better against fraud. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by Mitt Romney’s top attorney and Obama’s counsel, has endorsed key registration reforms.

The biggest reason for opposition to a proposal like Clinton’s, if unstated, is the notion that maybe we don’t really want everyone to be able to vote. But we all know that idea runs afoul of our most fundamental core precepts. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote that government is legitimate only if it rests on the “consent of the governed.” That consent becomes muddied by missing data, illegible lists and long lines of voters. Last year, turnout fell to its lowest level in seven decades.

One leading candidate has already spoken up. As 2016 approaches, let’s hope that all candidates from both parties will tell us what they would do to improve our democracy.

(Photo: AP)