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Can the U.S. Register Every Voter?

Brennan Center’s sixteen-country study provides blueprint for U.S. modernization plan.

June 15, 2009

For Immediate Release

Contact:          Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, 212–998–6289

                        Susan Lehman, 212–998–6318

Sixteen-country study provides blueprint for U.S. modernization plan

New YorkA new study of sixteen countries shows that in nearly every democracy surveyed, government helps assure that every eligible citizen is registered to vote. If the United States were to modernize voter registration in this way, it would add between 50 and 65 million citizens to the rolls.

Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World is the most comprehensive examination of voter registration systems around the world. It comes after the 2008 election, which saw rising civic participation but in which two-to-three million voters could not cast ballots because of registration problems, according to a recent study.  The Brennan Center and other voting rights groups have urged Congress to consider legislation to modernize the U.S. voter registration system. Already, the Senate Rules Committee has held hearings on voter registration problems and is currently examining the issue.

>>Click here to download the report.

 "We look at our antiquated voting system, and assume it simply must be this way. This study shows that we can register a far higher portion of the population, at less cost to taxpayers," said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center. “Can America build a system where every eligible citizen is registered?  Most other democracies already have.  New technology will allow us to, as well.”

Among the findings:

    • Canada, with a decentralized federal system similar to ours, automatically adds every 18 year old and   other citizens to its voter rolls.  All told, less than one in ten Canadians is unregistered, compared with one-quarter to one-third of eligible U.S. citizens not on the voter rolls.  Canada continually updates voter lists with data from other government agencies, a practice followed in several countries studied.
      • Canada saves $30 million Canadian dollars ($27 million American dollars) each election cycle since it converted to a modern, computer-driven system a decade ago.
        • Of the sixteen jurisdictions studied, the United States is one of only five democracies to place the full onus on individual citizens to register to vote. (The others are the Bahamas, Belize, Burundi and Mexico.)
          • Most countries have failsafe mechanisms for voters to correct the information on the rolls. Canada, for example, allows Election Day corrections so voters can update their information and assure they are on the rolls.  This is similar to Election Day Registration now used in eight U.S. states.

            “We now know we can build a more modern voter registration system in the United States,” said Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Center’s Democracy Program.  “Technological breakthroughs such as new statewide computerized voting lists make it possible for the first time. The experiences of these other democracies are very encouraging.”

            Expanding Democracy continues the Brennan Center’s ongoing publication series on voter registration modernization. Last year it proposed a system in which the states would register all citizens, automatically and permanently.  In coming weeks, the Brennan Center will release policy briefs exploring aspects of reform, including monographs showing how some states permanently register voters, how the Selective Service system automatically registers young men for its purposes, and other topics. 

            “Congress is dealing with many pressing issues. But enhancing people’s trust in our electoral system is critical as we work to solve the country’s long-term problems. Modernizing voter registration is a key systemic reform that will strengthen democracy and help to assure voters that our system works.  Voter registration modernization should be a key priority as Congress considers the next wave of reforms later this session,” said Susan Liss, the director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. 

            Expanding Democracy is authored by Jennifer Rosenberg, a Voting Rights and Elections Fellow, with Margaret Chen, a Senior Research Associate in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Ms. Rosenberg is now working at the National Center for State Courts in Kosovo.

            For more information or to set up an interview with Michael Waldman, Wendy Weiser or Susan Liss, please contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin at 212–998–6289 or or Susan Lehman at 212–998–6318 or