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Can We Register Voters Better? Yes.

Low voter turnout isn’t a result of apathy, but of poor voter registration systems. With a few simple changes—automatic registration, permanent registration through electronic updates, and an Election Day list correction procedure—50 to 65 million eligible voters would be added to the registration rolls. Congress must make this a priority.

July 10, 2009

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

We talk about promoting democracy around the world, but neglect the infrastructure of our own democracy. This is most visible in our antiquated voter registration system.

Voter registration is the gateway to voting. But our registration system relies on 19th century practices, and, leaves millions of eligible voters out of the political process. Recent Census reports show that 30% of eligible Americans aren’t registered to vote. Most major democracies do far better; a recent Brennan Center study of voter registration systems around the world shows that Canada, France, Germany, and Great Britain each register well over 90% of their eligible citizens.

Voter apathy does not explain our low registration rates. In the 2008 elections, 2 to 3 million eligible Americans attempted to vote, but were thwarted by voter registration problems; an additional 9 million were unable to register because of registration deadlines or residency rules, Professor Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard and MIT testified before the Senate Rules Committee this year. Voter protection hotlines consistently say voter registration is the problem would-be voters report most often. And election officials report that registration problems are the number one reason that provisional ballots are not counted.

So why do we lag so far behind other countries in voter registration? Unlike other major democracies, the United States places the onus of voter registration on individual citizens. Plus, our system is based principally on paper forms, which compounds the problem. Every voter, every time they move, must fill out new forms which must then be delivered to appropriate election officials, deciphered, processed, and entered into a database; the forms typically arrive together in huge volumes, right before an election. This system is ripe for error, duplication, and waste; worse, the system ends up disenfranchising millions of eligible voters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our study of twenty voter registration systems around the world—the most comprehensive such study to date—finds that in nearly every democracy surveyed, government helps assure that every eligible citizen is registered to vote. Only four countries other than the United States—the Bahamas, Belize, Burundi, and Mexico—place the burden of voter registration on individual citizens.

Other democracies use a variety of methods to register voters, but the most common method—and one which is readily adoptable here—is by compiling lists of unregistered eligible citizens from other government lists. Canada, which has a decentralized federal system similar to ours, automatically adds every 18-year-old and other citizens to its voter rolls using information from other government agencies. And, it continually updates voter records with data from other government agencies, a practice followed in several other countries. To insure government mistakes don’t prevent any one from voting, Canada has a procedure for citizens to register or update registrations on Election Day. Less than 7% of Canadians are unregistered, in contrast with 30% of Americans, and the vast majority of the records on the Canadian voter rolls—unlike ours—are accurate and up-to-date.

This common-sense approach—automatic registration, permanent registration through electronic updates, and an Election Day list correction procedure—would add 50 to 65 million eligible voters to the registration rolls here; it would also save taxpayers money and ensure our voter rolls are more accurate and less susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Canada and Australia both substantially reduced their election costs when they modernized their voter rolls—and, they recouped their low transition costs almost immediately.

Can this be achieved in the United States? Absolutely—and it wouldn’t even take that long. States already have the necessary infrastructure—centralized voter registration databases and government agency lists capable of electronically sharing information. With a minor upgrade to our registration system, states can use reliable and accurate information in other government databases to automatically add eligible citizens to the voter lists and keep their information current. That is how many other countries build their voter rolls, and it is also largely how the U.S. Selective Service System creates its list. Fail-safe procedures before and on Election Day will ensure that any government mistakes are caught and corrected.

There is the political will to do this: election officials and political actors of all stripes support voter registration modernization. In the June 25th issue of The Washington Post, the chief lawyers of both the Obama and McCain campaigns editorialized in favor of modernizing the registration system—a reform that addresses the concerns of both major parties. The Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Senator Chuck Schumer, has already held a hearing on the problems with the voter registration system. Now is the time for Congress to take the next step to solve those problems and make voter registration modernization a priority this year.