Last Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to testify in Congress before a hearing of the Committee on House Administration on the 2010 elections. While a lot went right from the perspective of voting rights and election administration, 2010 provided plenty of examples of how even now, a decade after “hanging chad” became a household term and states all over the country began purchasing new, modern voting machines, we are still struggling to bring the way we run our elections into the 21st century.
In particular, the 2010 elections showed the continuing and critical need to (1) modernize our country’s voter registration system and (2) create an accessible, national database and reporting system to track voting system malfunctions.
Modernizing the Nation’s Antiquated Registration System
The 2010 election demonstrated, yet again, that our voter registration system needs an upgrade. Developed in the early 19th century and still based largely on paper, the current system in most of the country is costly, inefficient and unreliable. The system overwhelms election officials with burdensome and needless paperwork, and it prevents many American citizens from exercising their right to vote.
At least three data points from the 2010 election point to the continuing need to modernize the country’s voter registration system:
- Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection effort, said voter registration issues were their #1 most reported problem in 2010. 24% of their voter hotline’s call volume had to do with voter registration problems.
- Election officials, too, voiced commonly heard frustrations. In the coming months, the Brennan Center will release an analysis of post-election reports from election officials across the United States. Our preliminary research reveals that officials experienced the same yearly headaches with the current paper-based voter registration system, from inaccurate registrations to a last minute flood of registration forms.
- The 2010 election saw dramatically lower voter registration rates compared to the last midterm election. Almost every jurisdiction with available data showed dramatic drops in new voter registrations.
The solution is voter registration modernization, which offers opportunities to make registering to vote easier, faster, more reliable, and more secure, all while saving election officials’ time and taxpayers’ money.
The key components of a fully modernized voter registration system are:
- Automated Registration. Under an automated registration system, states automatically register eligible, consenting citizens, including newly eligible citizens, when they interact with government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles.
- Permanent or Portable Registration. Under permanent registration, once a voter is on a state’s voter rolls, they will remain registered and able to vote at the polling place associated with their address so long as they continue to reside in that state. Permanent registration can be accomplished by automatic registration record updates and procedures allowing voters to update their records before and on Election Day.
- Election Day Correction. Under an Election Day correction process, citizens can correct errors and omissions on the voter rolls before and on Election Day.
- Online Registration. Online registration provides another critical safeguard to ensure accurate voter rolls.
A Brennan Center report on steps some states have already taken towards modernization found three main benefits:
- Increased Registration Rates. Registration rates at DMVs doubled in Washington and Kansas, and increased seven-fold in South Dakota after the states automated the voter registration system at DMVs.
- More Accurate and Secure Rolls. A 2009 survey of incomplete and incorrect registrations in Maricopa County, Arizona found that electronic voter registrations up to five times less error-prone than their paper-based counterparts.
- Substantial Savings to Taxpayers. Upgrades to the voter registration system are surprisingly inexpensive to implement, ranging from no additional cost to several hundred thousand dollars. These small initial investments yield enormous annual savings.
- Online and automated DMV registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. The county spends 33¢ to manually process an electronic application, and an average of 3¢ using a partially automated review process, compared to 83¢ for a paper registration form.
- Delaware’s paperless voter registration at DMVs saves election officials more than $200,000 every year on personnel costs, over and above the savings they reaped by partially automating the process in the mid-1990s.
Creating a National Database to Reduce Voting System Malfunctions
Too often in the past this has meant that voting systems fail in a particular county in one election, and then again later under similar circumstances, in another locale and election. These repeated failures disenfranchise voters and damage public confidence in the electoral system.
For a 2010 report, the Brennan Center closely studied fourteen cases of voting machine failures. Most of the election officials we interviewed in connection with these case studies claimed to have had no prior warning of the problems that were eventually identified, and yet in most cases, the vendors were (or should have been) aware of the problems – often because the same problem had been reported to them earlier by another election official.
The solution is a national database of voting system problems.
Given the nature and importance of voting systems to our democracy, we need a new national system to ensure that voting system defects are caught early, disclosed immediately, and corrected quickly and comprehensively. The system must include four key elements to work effectively:
- A Publicly Available, Searchable, Centralized Database. Election officials, in particular, would benefit from a publicly available, searchable online database that includes official as well as voter-reported data regarding voting system failures and vulnerabilities
- Vendor Reporting Requirements. Vendors must be required to notify the appropriate government agency of any known and suspected voting system failures and vulnerabilities, and other reported problems, including customer complaints and warranty claims.
- A Federal Agency with Investigatory Powers. The best way to ensure that vendors address potential problems in a timely manner is to empower the appropriate government agency to investigate all voting system failures and vulnerabilities listed on the database.
- Enforcement Mechanisms. The appropriate government agency must have the power to levy civil penalties on vendors who fail to meet the reporting requirement or to remedy failures or vulnerabilities with their voting systems.
We should applaud election officials for their successful efforts in 2010. Under serious budget constraints and vast changes, they oversaw another successful national election. Modernizing our antiquated registration system and establish a national database of voting machine problems would significantly ease the burden we place on them, and make it easier to ensure that every eligible voter is able to vote and have their vote accurately counted.