Yesterday, at a ceremony presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of new stamps honoring the most influential Supreme Court Justices, among them Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. The stamp commemorating Justice Brennan is a welcome and well-deserved tribute; it’s impossible to name any judges who cared about our democracy more than Justice Brennan did.
The new Justice Brennan stamp is a tremendous honor. There’s another move the postal service could make, though, which would have a significant effect on the American democracy so dear to Justice Brennan’s heart – and all it would take is a simple, clerical change to one of the postal service’s most frequently used forms. By making a small tweak to its national change of address form, the postal service could make American elections function more efficiently and eliminate problems for millions of Americans on Election Day. This easy step would be a meaningful tribute to Justice Brennan, whose judicial decisions uniformly sought to protect the fundamental right to vote, including his opinion in the landmark case Baker v. Carr, which opened the door for courts to protect the “one-person, one-vote” principle.
One of the biggest challenges facing election administrators is the need to ensure that voters’ registration records contain up-to-date, accurate information, including address information. Doing so isn’t easy because tens of millions of Americans – as many as one in six – move every year. In any five-year period, approximately 45 percent of the U.S. population moves. All this moving poses big challenges for election administrators – and voters.
Under the current system of voter registration, voters who move must re-register every time their address changes by sending election officials an old fashioned, paper form. Every time there’s an election, a flood of these forms are submitted just before the registration deadline. This consumes a big percentage of election administrators’ resources: address updates account for about a third of all voter registration transactions and, unsurprisingly, election officials report that dealing with address changes is the most challenging aspect of voter list maintenance. Processing so many forms results in errors with voters’ registrations, as temporary clerks enter data hand-written on paper forms into states’ registration lists.
These problems could be reduced significantly if election officials had a tool to update voters’ addresses in their registration records on a rolling basis, not right before Election Day when the paper forms flood in. The postal service’s change of address form could be this tool – if postal officials just added a single question. All they need to do is ask people if the address changes they submit to the post office are just temporary changes for mail forwarding, or should be used to update their permanent voting addresses. The postal service already collects information on address changes. It wouldn’t be difficult to ask one more question about voting residence and share the information voters submit with election officials.
A simple checkbox would do the job: “Check this box if you do not want to change the address where you are registered to vote. Unless you check this box, your address change will be reported to your state’s election agency.”
Because the change of address form doesn’t currently ask about voting address, election officials are often reluctant to rely on postal data to update voters’ records. This makes sense, since there are plenty of reasons voters might want to have their mail forwarded without changing their permanent voting address – like when a member of the armed forces is assigned to a new location but intends to eventually return to his or her permanent voting address. Letting voters specify changes to their voting address would let election administrators know when voters had – and hadn’t – moved their voting residence. This way, the voters’ records could be updated ahead of Election Day, eliminating the eleventh hour scramble to correct old registration information at the last minute.
Some states already use postal data to update the addresses of voters who move. Minnesota, for example, revised its election code in 2008, and now uses postal data to update the addresses of voters who move either within or outside the state. Similarly, Oregon conducts regular, bi-annual cross-checks of postal change of address data to update address information for voters who have moved – a particularly important task in Oregon, which votes entirely by mail. But given the current change of address form, states like Minnesota and Oregon must do follow-up investigations to determine which mailing address changes should also serve as voting address updates, a task that adds expense and delays, and introduces opportunities for errors. Adding the check-box would address these concerns.
The postal service should also provide election officials with change of address data free of charge – or at least at cost. Laws in more than half the states currently authorize election officials to update address information based on postal data. But some officials don’t do so because of the cost of obtaining the data. Requiring that the postal service furnish election officials with address data at little or no cost will reduce the costs of updating voter data and produce more accurate voter rolls.
Since the historic 2008 election, a chorus of voices has been calling for reforms of the voter registration system that will bring that system into the twenty-first century. A simple change by the postal service could significantly aid in this process, improving our voter registration system and ensuring accurate voter rolls. It would be a welcome contribution to a modern voter registration system in which accurate data from various government sources is provided to election officials, improving administrative efficiency and eliminating Election Day problems that stem from registration errors.
Making this change would go a long way to ensuring that citizens’ votes’ don’t go uncounted because of out of date registrations or clerical errors in their registration records. That would be a fitting tribute to Justice Brennan, and all those who share his vision of a fully enfranchised society.