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Looking Around the World for Inspiration: Voter Registration

Chile modernized its voter registration system this week. But a first-rate democracy like the U.S. still lags behind.

  • Lianna Reagan
February 9, 2012

This week, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera signed a bill into law that automatically registers its citizens to vote, which is expected to add 4.5 million people to Chile’s registration rolls. In doing so, the country joins many other democratic nations, including Australia, Canada, and France, that already have some form of automatic registration in place.

Unfortunately, the United States, where 35 percent of citizens — about 73.5 million — who are eligible to vote are not registered, does not have this policy in place.  With such low registration rates, it is hard to imagine that in the last few years multiple laws have been approved across the country to restrict the ability of people to vote.  In many states, there are even new burdens being placed specifically on the ability of community groups to register voters. One of the most onerous laws that passed was in Florida, and those restrictions are so severe that the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote had to suspend their voter registration drives.

Voting is not only a right, but a fundamental part of building an engaged citizenry and the foundation for civic participation. The Brennan Center advocates for a number of ways to modernize our country’s voter registration process that would be helpful to states to facilitate widespread registration. These provisions of voter registration modernization include automated registration (or automatically registering eligible citizens based on lists from other governmental agencies), online registration and access (being able to register to vote; or check, and edit one’s registration online), and permanent state registration (a voter’s registration record is moved as needed among jurisdictions within the state, but the voter is kept on the voter rolls as long as she resides in the state). All of these measures would effectively and efficiently improve voter registration, and enable more Americans to vote.

In addition to making our democracy more inclusive, voter registration modernization could make voting rolls more clean and accurate. The key is in sharing and comparing information between government agencies while moving away from the antiquated paper-based system on which most states rely. In too many states, a form has to get mailed to the county election office where it is hard-entered into the state voter registration database. This paper based system is not only labor intensive, but also error prone, and can lead to numerous problems in the electoral process. These systems are also incredibly costly at a time when money is particularly tight in the states. Moving to a paperless system can save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. In Maricopa County, Arizona, they saved $450,000 by switching to online registration and partial automation, and in Delaware, they saved $200,000 just on personnel costs. Voter registration modernization has also gained bipartisan support around the country, as it is an area in which both parties can come together in the common goal of efficiency and cost reduction.

By following in the footsteps of many of the world’s developed democracies, Chile took an essential step toward modernizing its voter registration system. As a first-rate democracy the United States should do no less.