Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World
The United States is one of a few democratic nations that place the entire burden of registering to vote on individual citizens. Today, one-quarter to one-third of all eligible Americans remain unregistered — and thus are unable to cast ballots that will count. Even Americans who are registered risk being blocked from casting a ballot because of problems with our voter registration system — unprocessed registrations, inaccurate purges of names from the voter rolls, and other administrative and human errors. The registration system is as much a problem for the dedicated civil servants who administer our elections as it is for voters. It is costly, inefficient, and insufficiently accurate.
Now, after a decade of controversy over election and voting problems, the United States is again considering poised to reforms to voter registration. For the first time, the Congress is considering voter registration modernization that would enlist empower state governments to assure that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, are on the rolls. Such a step would add tens of millions to the rolls, and better ensure that the information on the rolls stays accurate and up-to-date. Yet one obvious question arises: Can this, in fact, be done? As this report demonstrates, the systems in a number of the world’s major democracies prove this can be done.
In fact, it has been — in several other major democracies. In every one of these countries, government itself assumes the responsibility of creating and keeping voter rolls, rather than relying on citizens to register themselves and navigate a clunky, outdated, and often inaccurate system.
Of greatest relevance, Canada shares our decentralized federal system. There, provinces create and maintain their own voter rolls, and a federal election authority builds a separate voter roll for use in federal elections that is based in significant part on the provincial rolls and in part on other government lists. When an individual turns eighteen, or becomes a citizen, he or she is added to the rolls. A voter who moves remains on the rolls. The system works efficiently (and with no allegations of fraud). An overwhelming Nninety-three percent of eligible citizens are registered to vote, compared to 68% of Americans who were registered to vote as of the last Census report.
The experience of these other democracies suggests building a modern voter registration system is a surprisingly straightforward task. In recent years, several democracies have moved to take advantage of new technologiesy to help build more complete and accurate voter lists. Their experiences are encouraging. These restructured systems reduce administrative costs and improve the accuracy of voter rolls.
This report is a multi-nation examination of the details of voter registration systems. It examines the way sixteen other countries create and keep voter lists. Many of the nations studied are similar to ours in diverse populations, cultural values, and government structures. Their experiences show the clear benefits to voters, overall taxpayer savings, and best practices that can be employed in the United States as Congress drafts reform legislation (and some pitfalls) of concerted reform.
Additional Appendices to the Report
An appendix on Canada's voter registration system is included with the report. The following appendices provide additional information on the voter registration systems in the rest of the 20 jurisdictions studied. Some offer greater detail than others due to the availability and accessibility of reliable information. Because many jurisdictions use substantially similar methodologies for compiling and maintaining their respective voter rolls, we have not written an appendix for every jurisdiction studied. In the interest of avoiding redundancy, we have selected a representative jurisdiction to describe in detail in an appendix and suggest relevant parallels and distinctions in jurisdictions with similar voter registration systems in the endnotes.
Each appendix offers a brief summary of the jurisdiction's demographics and election administration. This is followed by descriptions of how voters are added to the voter rolls and how existing entries on the rolls are updated to account for changes in registration information or voting eligibility. We also include information on fail-safes and opportunities to correct errors should registration methods result in inaccuracies in registration records or omissions from the voter rolls. Lastly, we provide information on protections of voters' information and privacy where available.
Unless otherwise stated, voting and registration are voluntary.
- Argentina Appendix
- Australia Appendix
- Austria Appendix
- Bahamas Appendix
- Belize Appendix
- Burundi Appendix
- France Appendix
- Great Britain Appendix
- Mexico Appendix
- Peru Appendix
- Québec Appendix
- Saskatchwan Appendix
- South Africa Appendix
- Sweden Appendix
About the Voting Rights and Elections Project
The Voting Rights and Elections Project works to expand the franchise, to ensure that every eligible American can vote, and that every vote cast is accurately recorded and counted. The Center’s staff provides top-flight legal and policy assistance on a broad range of election administration issues including voter registration systems, voting technology, voter identification, statewide voter registration list maintenance, and provisional ballots.
About the Authors
Jennifer S. Rosenberg is the Voting Rights and Elections fellow in the Democracy Program, working on voter registration and student voting issues. Ms. Rosenberg earned her J.D. cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. She earned her B.A. from Columbia University. She is the co-author along with Nathaniel Persily of Defacing Democracy?: The Changing Nature and Rising Importance of As-Applied Challenges in the Supreme Court’s Recent Election Law Decisions, 93 Minn. L. Rev. 1644 (2009). Prior to joining the Brennan Center, she clerked for Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and worked as an associate at the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.
Margaret Chen is a Senior Research Associate in the Democracy Program, working on voting rights and election reform. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, she was a paralegal at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. She received her B.A. in economics and political science from Barnard College.