Modernize Voter Registration

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

February 4, 2016

Our democracy is a point of pride, but millions of eligible citizens go to vote only to find their names missing from the rolls — often, wrongly deleted. In our highly mobile society, others simply fall from the rolls when they move. America’s outdated and error-prone voter registration system, which has not kept pace with modern life, is largely to blame. It erects needless barriers, fuels voter frustration, and creates long lines.

This antiquated system is the reason 50 million Americans, nearly one in four eligible voters, are not signed up.[1] In 2008 alone, approximately 3 million eligible citizens attempted to vote but could not thanks to registration errors, and in 2012, millions again experienced registration problems at the polls.[2]

Proposal

Automatic, permanent voter registration is a transformative policy innovation. It would permanently add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, save money, increase accuracy, curb the potential for fraud, and protect the integrity of our elections.

While citizens have a responsibility to take part in the democratic process, government should also do its part by clearing bureaucratic obstacles to the ballot box. A modern voter registration system would do that with four key components:

  • Automatic registration. States adopt electronic systems for receiving and transmitting registrations and also take responsibility for signing up citizens so they are automatically added to the voter rolls when they interact with government agencies, unless they opt out.
     
  • Portability. Once citizens are signed up to vote, they remain registered when they move within their states.
     
  • Online registration.
     
  • Election Day safety net. This gives people the opportunity to register or update their information at the polls.

This should become the new national standard. The best way to get there is for Congress to mandate a modern voter registration system.  

Why This Can Be Achieved

We know this can be done because the federal government has made similar improvements in the past. In 2002, in response to concerns over the election system after the 2000 Florida debacle, the Help America Vote Act required states to adopt computerized voter rolls and upgrade their voting machines, providing federal funds to help them do it. Congress can fund a similar upgrade for the registration system now.

The transformative breakthrough came in 2015. California and Oregon enacted automatic voter registration through the DMVs. All who obtain a driver's license will be automatically registered to vote, unless they opt out. Properly implemented, these could add up to 6 million voters to the rolls. The model would work for other government agencies as well. This approach has caught attention throughout the country. In New Jersey, the legislature enacted a similar measure, though Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, and lawmakers are now looking to move it forward as a ballot initiative. Activists are readying similar proposals in states from Illinois to Arizona. National political figures have embraced the idea. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed universal registration for all citizens who turn 18. Sen. Bernie Sanders has endorsed a similar idea.

Meanwhile, elements of modernized voter registration systems are also passing in many states — and the results are encouraging:

  • Electronically transferring registration information helps increase registration rates. In South Dakota, within a few years, the registration rate at the state motor vehicle agency increased seven-fold.
     
  • Online registration reaches voters where they are — especially young people. In Arizona, registration rates for 18- to 24-year-olds doubled in two years from 29 percent to 48 percent in 2004 and to 53 percent in 2008.[3] Now, more than 30 states already or will soon allow citizens to register to vote online.
     
  • Modernization also saves money. Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix) found that processing a paper registration form costs 83 cents, compared to an average of 3 cents for applications received electronically through the DMV or online.[4]

These reforms also respond directly to concerns about the integrity of our elections. Some fear that deceased voters and duplicate registrations could help unscrupulous people manipulate close contests. But because voters are sending current information into the system and correcting errors on Election Day, outdated or duplicate records can be eliminated. And automatic registration and online systems eliminate paper — which leaves leave even less room for human error from bad handwriting, mishandling paper forms, or manual data entry.

A modern system effectively counters the threat of fraud and will boost voters’ confidence in our system.

Resources

Next: Restore the Voting Rights Act


[1] Pew Center on the States, Inaccurate, Costly and Inefficient: Evidence that America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade 1 (2012), available at http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2012/02/14/inaccurate-costly-and-inefficient-evidence-that-americas-voter-registration-system-needs-an-upgrade.

[2] Michael Waldman, Hillary’s Game-Changing Voting Reform, Politico Magazine, June 10, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/hillary-clinton-2016-voting-reform-118761.html#.VbZdKvnqU1V.

[3] Brennan Ctr. for Justice, The Case for Automatic, Permanent Voter Registration 10 (2015), available at https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Case_for_...

[4] Ponoroff, supra note 19, at 12.