Just six months ago the District of Columbia authorized same-day registration and other measures to create a more voter-friendly electoral system for D.C. residents. This was a commendable step in itself. But what’s just as impressive is the way the District Council refused to rest on its laurels, asking the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to prepare a study on the feasibility of adopting automatic voter registration. Two weeks ago, the Board submitted its findings.
When it comes to the need for further reform, the Board does not mince words: “The current paper-based, voter-initiated voter registration system in the District and elsewhere in the nation is cumbersome, inefficient and rife with opportunities for error. It is estimated that as many as 10 percent of voter registration records throughout the nation contain an erroneous name, address or birth date.” And while getting the right information onto voter rolls is an ongoing struggle, “outdated voter records generally remain active for many years.”
As the Brennan Center and others have noted, the voter registration systems used in our states and localities to collect and process voter data have only begun applying modern technology to the task. Statewide database systems now help election officials to manage the information they have. But to keep that information complete and up-to-date, they are largely forced to rely on the same haphazard methods used for over a hundred years.
Recognizing that the tools for developing a fully modernizing system are ready at hand, the D.C. Board recommends putting them to work. The Board recommends that that the District’s DMVs, social service offices, schools, and other agencies send information from their databases to election officials, who would use the data to build and update registration files for eligible residents. If officials require additional information to complete a person’s registration—for example, an affirmation of citizenship—the individual would have the opportunity to provide it any time up to and including Election Day. The use of digitized signatures would eliminate the need for paper forms while also providing officials an easier way to verify poll books and petitions. Non-citizens inadvertently placed on the rolls would not be penalized, and citizens who didn’t wish to register would have the opportunity to opt out.
It’s an admirable plan, consistent with many of the Brennan Center’s recommendations. It is also consistent with trends across the country. In Utah a bipartisan Governor’s Commission recently recommended similar measures, and the Ohio Legislature is currently considering a plan to introduce automatic registration from DMV offices, public service agencies, and schools. Meanwhile a growing number of states have begun taking other steps toward reform, introducing online registration and paperless motor voter systems. As a forthcoming Brennan Center study illustrates, their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, demonstrating that modernization is feasible, efficient, and highly cost-effective.
By heeding the Board of Elections’ recommendations, D.C. officials have the opportunity to demonstrate national leadership on this issue, and we urge them to do so. Our 19th century approach to registration will only continue to fall behind our increasingly mobile society. Voters deserve better, and modernization’s growing track record is showing just how much better we can do.