Voter Registration Modernization

June 23, 2009

Since the Florida election debacle in 2000 laid bare the way Americans cast and count votes, lawmakers and officials at federal, state, and local levels have made fitful progress toward building a modern and democratically inclusive election system. But the promise of a renewed democratic system has not been fully realized. Too often, when it comes to our election system, policymaking has devolved into partisan wrangling or become bogged down in arcane technicalities.

Today we have the opportunity for a major breakthrough for effective democracy. The 2008 election saw a record number of new voters. New election technology and the implementation of a recent federal law in the states make it possible to overcome the challenges with our voter registration system—the single greatest cause of voting prob lems in the United States. We can now truly modernize the voter registration process by upgrading to a system of universal voter registration—a system where all eligible citizens are able to vote because the government has taken the steps to make it possible for them to be on the voter rolls, permanently. Citizens must take responsibility to vote, but government should do its part by clearing away obstacles to their full participation. The current voter registration system—which is governed by a dizzying array of rules and is susceptible to error and manipulation—is the largest source of such obstacles.

In 2001, a task force for a commission chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford concluded: “The registration laws in force throughout the United States are among the world’s most demanding … [and are ] one reason why voter turnout in the United States is near the bottom of the developed world.” Currently, eligible voters are not placed on electoral rolls unless they first take the initiative to register and satisfy state-imposed requirements for voter registration. State officials must expend substantial resources manually processing each voter registration form, one-by-one, applying rules and procedures that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Eligible citizens’ voter registrations may be rejected if technical requirements are not met or canceled without notice. Political operatives may attempt to block certain citizens from the voter rolls by challenging their registrations or seeking to impose new technical hurdles to registration. Once they have registered, vot ers must start the process all over again virtually every time they move. The result is a system in which many eligible citizens are unable to vote. They fall off the rolls; they never sign up in the first place; they drift further away from electoral participation. Some fifty million eligible American citizens are not regis tered to vote. Most Americans take this system for granted, but it was not always this way, and it does not have to be this way forever.

The United States is one of the few industrialized democracies that place the onus of registration on the voter. In other democracies, the government facilitates voting by taking upon itself the responsibility to build voter rolls of all eligible citizens. Even in the United States, voter-initiated registration did not exist until the late nineteenth century. It was instituted then in many states with the intention of suppressing unpopular voters, especially former slaves and new Euro pean immigrants, and it continues to disenfranchise many Americans to this day.

Fortunately, in part because of new federal laws, states have made it easier to register to vote over the last several decades. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down racially discriminatory barriers to voter registration, but did not require government to take more affirma tive steps to ensure registration. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), popularly known as “Motor Voter,” required government agencies such as departments of motor vehicles and public assistance offices to make voter registration services available to citizens. After the 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandated that states maintain computerized voter databases at the state level, rather than county by county. These databases are now in place in every state and can facilitate more complete and accurate voter rolls.

Despite these advances, our voter-initiated registration system continues to impose significant administrative costs and costs on voters. As long as the government continues to rely on citizens to register themselves, opening up access means ceding more control to voters and those who assist them to deter mine when and how they register. Elections officials may be overwhelmed by the dual demands of processing the typical surge of registrations that come in at the last minute and planning for elections. If the system cannot keep up, votes inevitably will be lost. The patchwork of state rules and practices that serve a gate-keeping function to registration also keeps out eligible voters and makes the system vulnerable to partisan manipulation and error. Our current voter registration system is the single greatest source of disputes and litigation over election administration rules and practices.

This year, when surging citizen participation underscores the deep desire for a change in national direction, we see with renewed urgency the value in building a modern and fully participatory electoral system. A universal voter registration system creates voter rolls that are as comprehensive as pos sible well in advance of Election Day and provides a fail-safe mechanism if an eligible voter shows up at the polls but cannot be found on the list. Such a system is routine in other countries, and because of the recent legal and technological advances in voter registration, it is now achievable here.  

Federal action can begin to move the country toward this goal in short order. A system of universal registration would build on existing policies and innovations undertaken by state and local officials. The next Congress can substantially speed up the process by:

  • Establishing a national mandate for universal voter registration within each state;
  • Providing federal funds for states taking steps toward universal voter registration;
  • Requiring “permanent voter registration” systems, so that once voters are registered, they will stay on the rolls when they move; and
  • Requiring fail-safe procedures, so that eligible voters whose names do not appear on the voter rolls or whose information is not up to date can correct the rolls and vote on the same day.

Click here to download a PDF.