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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.

  • Jennifer L. Clark
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natural disaster or a tech­no­lo­gical melt­down high­lights the short­com­ings of our voter regis­tra­tion system, the outdated and back­ward process by which we register voters in many of our states creates a peren­nial head­ache for voters and elec­tion offi­cials around the coun­try.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)