An Essential Element of Emergency Preparedness: Modernizing Our Voter Registration System

Natural disasters strike and technology is not fail-safe, but diversifying registration methods will provide voters a variety of options to ensure eligibility to participate on Election Day.

October 21, 2016

While still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Matthew, citizens in the Southeast had to scramble over the past week to register to vote for this November’s election. Courts in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia have ruled that these states must extend registration deadlines in certain counties as a result of Matthew’s disruption. And, in Virginia, an overburdened website stymied voters attempting to register online, leading a federal court to extend that state’s registration deadline.

But citizens shouldn’t have to run to the courthouse to protect their eligibility to cast a ballot that counts. While a natural disaster or a technological meltdown highlights the shortcomings of our voter registration system, the outdated and backward process by which we register voters in many of our states creates a perennial headache for voters and election officials around the country. Modernizing our voter registration system to maximize the registration of voters year-round would go a long way to ending disenfranchisement due to natural disasters, technological mishaps, or any of the other things that can and do go wrong in the lead-up to an election.

Online voter registration, in which voters can register to vote and update their registration online, has been a welcome reform, popular with voters and with officials. In fact, 39 states have or will soon have online registration systems in place. However, even with online voter registration, there is a pre-election rush of new registrants, which can crash websites and stop voters from registering. This year in Georgia, anyone who tried to register on the state’s online registration website between the evening of Friday, October 7 and midday on Monday, October 10 was met with an error message. In Virginia on Monday, the last day for the state’s voters to register, the online registration system crashed under the weight of heavy demand. Advocates have estimated that the glitch prevented “tens of thousands” of Virginians from registering. In South Carolina, too, advocates on the ground have reported would-be voters stymied in their attempts to register by the state’s overburdened online voter registration system.

So, while online registration is one essential registration method states should offer voters, it can’t be the only one. In particular, voters need easy and reliable ways to register throughout the year. The best way to ensure consistent and reliably high voter registration is by implementing automatic voter registration. Under automatic registration, eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote unless they decline, and agencies transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials. An eligible citizen who visits the DMV in February, for example, will be registered to vote as part of that visit, and won’t need to worry about their registration come October.

We know automatic registration works to steadily grow the rolls because we’ve seen the incredible successes in Oregon and Connecticut, the two states that have implemented automatic registration at their motor vehicle agencies. Since putting its automatic registration system into place this past January, Oregon has on average registered four times more voters per month at the DMV than previously. Connecticut registered more voters at motor vehicles agencies in the first month of automatic registration than in the entire preceding three years.

The good news for voters is that automatic voter registration is becoming increasingly popular. The legislatures in Oregon, California, Vermont, and West Virginia have each passed automatic voter registration, and 21 other states introduced legislation to follow suit in this past legislation session. Connecticut implemented automatic registration through an agreement between the Secretary of State’s office and the DMV.

The next important step for automatic voter registration is expansion beyond motor vehicle agencies. Many would-be voters don’t have a car or a driver’s license, and are unlikely to interact with the DMV. In fact, those populations that are disproportionately underrepresented on our voter rolls — minorities and low-income individuals in particular — are also less likely to drive. Automatic voter registration must be expended to register eligible citizens when they interact with social service agencies, get medical benefits, or register for classes at community college.

Even with online voter registration and automatic voter registration, there will be some would-be voters who fall through the cracks.  For this reason, states should also offer same day registration opportunities, in which eligible citizens can register and vote in one trip. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia already offer same day registration, allowing eligible citizens to register or update their information at the polls on Election Day. Same day registration also has the benefits of increasing voter turnout by 5-7 percent and decreasing provisional voting, without any increases in voter fraud.

Natural disasters strike and technology is not fail-safe, but democratic participation in elections is far too important to be jeopardized by weather and computer glitches. By diversifying registration methods, voters will have a wider variety of options to ensure eligibility on Election Day. States should implement these systems in order to alleviate last-minute rushes to register and to mitigate the disenfranchisement caused by website crashes, natural disasters, and other barriers to voter registration.

(Photo: Thinkstock)