Why Hans von Spakovsky is Wrong on Voter Registration

April 19, 2013

Images of voters waiting in line for hours to cast ballots in the 2012 election are still fresh in our mind. Much of this can be traced to our outdated, ramshackle voter registration system. The Pew Center estimates 24 million voter registrations nationwide are no longer valid or contain errors. And at least 50 million eligible individuals are not registered to vote. In 2008, one report demonstrated that no less than 3 million people who thought they were registered showed up at the polls to find their names not on the rolls. Further, many of those facing registration problems are individuals who previously registered — a study of the 2000 election showed 1 in 3 unregistered individuals was previously registered to vote but had moved.

The Brennan Center has proposed a solution to this problem: Voter Registration Modernization. A modernized system has four basic components. Officials give citizens the choice to be electronically registered to vote at the same time they do business with a government office, such as applying for a driver's license, Social Security, or state veterans' benefits. Nobody is registered without consent, but, through the use of modern computer technology, far more have the chance to do so than with the old-fashioned model. Registration is portable — that is, it moves with the voter when she moves, because agencies use voter-verified updates to automatically keep the rolls current. Voters can also update their information and register to vote using online systems. And finally, eligible voters who arrive on Election Day to find their names not on the rolls can correct their registration information and vote a ballot that counts through a fail-safe correction system.

Policymakers and election officials nationwide have already embraced many components of modernized registration. At least 41 states and the District of Columbia have implemented elements of the plan, and election officials of both political parties have embraced it. At the federal level, Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Voter Empowerment Act (VEA), which contains a modernization section that mirrors the Brennan Center’s proposal.

The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky is not impressed. He recently published an article that purports to make the case against modernizing our registration system. Wary of “universal” voter registration, Mr. von Spakovsky envisions unwilling and ineligible voters being transferred haphazardly onto the voter rolls from whatever government list on which they might be found — a sort of mail-merge from hell. Fortunately, this is not what modernized registration looks like. Mr. von Spakovsky’s fears are misplaced for three reasons. He suggests that Voter Registration Modernization means adding people to registration lists first and asking questions later, when in fact the Brennan Center’s proposal requires election officials to verify voter consent, eligibility, and the absence of duplicates prior to adding anyone to the rolls. He fears that modernized registration will create opportunities for fraud. In contrast, modernization increases the security of our elections. And he believes eligible voters do not participate because they do not care, but available data shows that registration problems pose barriers to millions of would-be voters.

Indeed, Voter Registration Modernization would add up to 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls — permanently. It would also save states time and money by cutting out the need for ink-and-paper forms and administrative expenses. And because election officials could continually keep the voter rolls up to date, it would improve the integrity of our elections as well. Modernizing voter registration would go a long way toward combating the long lines of 2012, because it would eliminate many of the problems stemming from voter registration errors, which constitute a large percentage of Election Day headaches.

The voters who waited in hours-long lines to cast ballots have shown us that despite its flaws, our democracy is thriving. They deserve the best-run elections we can design. Our leaders at the state and federal levels should now be engaged in a straightforward, empirically based debate about how to improve the way we vote. When it comes to fixing our elections, facts matter.

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Fiction: Mandatory Registration. Von Spakovsky argues that individuals will be placed on the voter rolls without their consent and that voters must “opt out” by asking “to be removed from the registration list after the database information has been transferred to election officials.”

Fact: Convenient Choice to Register for Eligible Individuals. Under the Brennan Center proposal, no one would be registered without her consent. Instead, government would give citizens the choice to be electronically registered to vote at the same time they do business with a government office, such as applying for a driver's license or state veterans' benefits. The Voter Empowerment Act similarly provides that a voter will only be registered after answering “yes” to the question of “whether he or she wishes to be registered to vote.” If an individual does not want to be registered, she will not be registered to vote.


Fiction: Ineligible Voters Registered. Von Spakovsky says automated registration will result in “large numbers of ineligible voters” registered.

Fact: Voter Eligibility Affirmed Prior to Registration. Under the Brennan Center proposal as well as the VEA, just as with traditional registration, individuals are only signed up if they have been informed of the qualifications to register and complete a “signed affirmation of eligibility to register to vote in the state.” All the information needed for voter registration — including age, citizenship, residency, and signature — is collected prior to registration. A voter who registers at the same time as she receives other government services, like a driver’s license, will typically be subject to even greater verification than under traditional registration.


Fiction: Noncitizens Registered. Von Spakovsky claims that automated registration will result in non-citizens registering because some states “provide driver’s licenses to illegal aliens.”

Fact: Citizenship Affirmation Requirement Unchanged. As in the current system, voters will only be registered if they affirm their citizenship, irrespective of whether the state database maintains citizenship information. Moreover, election officials would only register individuals after verifying eligibility, as they do under current state law.


Fiction: Haphazard “Dumping” of Information into Voter Databases. Von Spakovsky claims modernized registration means “pouring huge amounts of information, much of it full of errors and mistakes, from federal databases into state voter registration databases.”

Fact: Electronic Transfer of Accurate Voter Information. Modernized voter registration dramatically reduces errors in the voter registration process. In a modernized system, agencies transfer individual voter information directly to election officials in a secure, electronic format after a citizen has indicated she wishes to be registered. This improves on the manual entry of traditional ink-and-paper registration forms, which may be incomplete and illegible and may result in data-entry errors. According to a 2008 study by election officials in Arizona’s largest county, electronic voter registrations are five times less likely to contain mistakes than registrations received on paper.


Fiction: Multiple or Duplicate Registrations. Von Spakovsky argues that modernized registration would result in “multiple or duplicate” registrations.

Fact: Accurate Voter Rolls. There is nothing about a modernized voter registration system that would create multiple registrations for the same person. To the contrary, more accurate registrations mean that there will be fewer duplicates. The VEA provides that the election official must compare information received from state agencies with the existing statewide voter registration list. If the individual is not already registered, the election official will add the registration. If the information indicates a change of address, the official will update the registration. The electronic transfer of data will facilitate keeping the rolls accurate and up-to-date.


Fiction: Voter Purges Are the Answer. Von Spakovsky suggests using voter purges to clean up the rolls.

Fact: Up-to-Date Voter Rolls. Modernized registration increases election integrity. Electronic verification, portable registration and voter-verified tools, such as online systems and fail-safe correction, help keep the voter rolls accurate and up-to-date. This is preferable to error-prone large-scale purges, which often occur at the last minute, use faulty matching criteria, and do not include proper notice to voters. Under modernization, the rolls will be more accurate and far fewer voter records will be subject to purges because, instead of becoming outdated, records will be updated regularly. Conversely, erroneous purges would be less consequential since there would be fail safe procedures to ensure that every eligible voter — and only eligible voters — are registered and can vote.


Fiction: Increases Voter Fraud. The article asserts that the VEA will provide a “get out of jail free” card to individuals who commit voter or voter registration fraud.

Fact: Fraud Punished, But No Individual Liability for Government Error. Under the VEA, those who know they cannot register but do so knowingly or willingly will still be subject to prosecution. The law ensures that a voter who is registered because of a government error will not be punished.


Fiction: Confidential Information at Risk. Von Spakovsky claims voter registration through government agencies will result in confidential information being disclosed.

Fact: Protection of Confidential Information. Far from decreasing voter privacy, the Brennan Center proposal increases privacy safeguards for individual voter information. The VEA similarly contains broad privacy protections, including a requirement that agencies safeguard confidential information for protected individuals, such as victims of domestic violence.


Fiction: Registration Problems Do Not Prevent Participation. The article claims registration is not a barrier because in 2008 approximately 90 percent of registered voters cast ballots and 46 percent of non-registrants did not register because they were not interested or involved in politics.

Fact: Barriers to Registration Reduce Participation. Registered voters participate at high rates, but more than 50 million eligible Americans are not registered. While some undoubtedly are not interested in politics (according to the data Von Spakovsky cites, less than half), others are but are thwarted by the registration system. A study by Harvard-MIT professor Stephen Ansolabehere found that between 2 and 3 million Americans tried to vote in 2008 but could not because of registration-related problems. According to a Census survey, nearly 1 million registered voters said they did not successfully vote in 2008 because of problems with registration. Of those unregistered, 25 percent said they did not register because of problems with deadlines, disabilities, not knowing how to register, or language barriers. The VEA’s registration modernization provisions could provide registration pathways to these individuals.


Fiction: People Do Not Register Because They Do Not Care. Von Spakovsky says non-registered voters “are not interested in politics, or are cynical about its outcomes, or do not believe their votes will make a difference” and that “citizens have a responsibility to inform state elections officials” when they move.

Fact: Many Registered Voters Drop Off the Rolls. In 2000, 1 out of 3 unregistered voters was an individual who was previously registered to vote but had not updated her registration after moving. A recent study by the Pew Center on the States found that 1 in 4 voters erroneously believed that their registrations would be updated when they changed their address with the Post Office. Modernizing voter registration will allow every citizen’s registration to move with the voter after an address change.


Fiction: Unfair Burdens on the States. The paper criticizes the voter registration bill as an “enormous unfunded mandate” that “would prove costly” and be “a diversion of limited government resources for little to no appreciable increase in voter participation rates.”

Fact: Voter Registration Modernization Saves Money and Works. At least 41 states and the District of Columbia have already implemented components of voter registration modernization policies with great success. These states have saved money and increased the registration rate and accuracy of their voter rolls.


Fiction: Federal Takeover of Elections. Von Spakovsky claims that the VEA would put the federal government in charge of “administering” state elections and would not “respect differences among states.”

Fact: State Election Officials Maintain Control. The VEA does not increase the federal government’s role in election administration. Local and state election officials would continue to be in charge, making eligibility determinations and maintaining voter lists — as they do in the numerous places where components of voter registration modernization have already been adopted at the state level. Building on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the VEA simply adds minimum national standards for administering voter registration.


Fiction: NVRA Did Not Increase Registration. Von Spakovsky claims that the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), upon which the VEA builds, did not increase registration because the registration rate in 1996 and 2008 remained the same.

Fact: NVRA Significantly Increased Registration, As Does Modernization. The NVRA passed in 1993. Between 1992, when the law was not in effect, and 1996, when it was, the number of registered voters in NVRA-covered states increased by nearly 3.4 million despite the fact the law had only been in effect in covered states for 22 months. States that, as a result of lawsuits, recently began complying with the NVRA’s requirement that registration services be provided at social service agencies saw registrations at those agencies increase dramatically. States that have automated registration rates at motor vehicle agencies saw registration rates increase as much as seven-fold.