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Modernizing Voter Registration, the Wisconsin Way

It is, perhaps, unusually appropriate that the voter registration reform of the cycle should be introduced in a state claiming “Forward” as its official motto.

  • Justin Levitt
April 20, 2010

It is, perhaps, unusually appropriate that the voter registration reform of the cycle should be introduced in a state claiming “Forward” as its official motto.

Our democracy is a source of pride and strength. But while we have upgraded parts of our election system to keep pace with American technology and demography, voter registration stands out as an anomaly stuck in the nineteenth century. Existing practices are prone to error and manipulation. Nearly a third of voting-age citizens are not registered. Election officials face an expensive and inefficient crush of new registrants every election cycle. 

It is time for an upgrade. The Brennan Center has been deeply involved in the effort to ensure that Americans have the modern voter registration systems we deserve, with procedures that efficiently, accurately, and securely reflect the entire eligible electorate.

And so it was that we were asked to testify in Wisconsin regarding an omnibus bill that would, in part, significantly update the state’s registration system.  In many ways, Wisconsin’s registration is comparatively advanced. Even so, the Census Bureau estimates that 26% of its voting-age citizens are unregistered, and municipal officials are saddled with an unnecessarily costly and cumbersome process. The system depends on millions of paper forms to activate new voters and keep up with movers (13% of voting-age residents annually), and aside from the fears of fraud prompted by the flood of forms, even the best paper-based data entry introduces errors. Wisconsin’s election-day failsafe compensates for quite a bit, but citizens who aren’t on the rolls beforehand miss the voter contact that turns residents into engaged civic participants, and leaving registration to election-day makes it hard to allocate resources effectively.

This leads to the pending bill, which strides toward a fully modernized system. It would create a secure online interface for certain citizens to check their registration status and correct errors or omissions. The bill would also leverage the state’s reliable motor vehicle records to improve the voter rolls, transferring data electronically to fill in blanks and keep the rolls up-to-date, without extra paper.  Individual voters would confirm their information before voting, and could opt out at any time. 

This thrust of the bill is worthy of hearty applause. The experience of other states with components of a modernized system already in place shows that the bill should save cost and improve accuracy. Moreover, the focus on continuous updates will smooth out the registration cycle, to take one piece of the last-minute load off of municipal administrators’ shoulders. Everyone can find something to like, which is why the concept has gotten bipartisan support in a way that is vanishingly rare in the election-regulation world.

That said, this bill is keyed to motor vehicle records, and that limitation threatens to leave behind a sizable population of eligible Wisconsin citizens, many from historically underserved communities. Though the bill requires a report assessing the potential to include other agencies, citizens without a driver’s license deserve more assurance that they will be included in modernization efforts as soon as the technology permits.

The bill also expands matching of registration records against other data. Some of this is required under federal law, and some is needed to make a modern system work; some seems unnecessary (e.g., checking data sent from the DMV against DMV data) or raises other concerns (e.g., checking data against national records or records from multiple states). This stands out to us, because perhaps no other organization in the country has done as much work on the potential for trouble in matching voter registration data

However, we also note that the bill places most of the discretion in this respect in the hands of the Government Accountability Board, which has rightly earned Wisconsin’s confidence.  The GAB has shown that it understands well the possibilities and limitations of data matching, and that it can be trusted to conduct matching with care, and to use the results in a fashion that safeguards eligible citizens’ rights and interests. That’s an important caveat given a degree of discretion that might not be appropriate elsewhere.

Implementation of the bill will depend on similarly sensible rules and procedures, at both the GAB and the Department of Transportation, to avoid voter confusion and maximize the gains to be had from increased efficiency. The more essential information that can be collected at one point of contact, making registration and registration updates truly a one-stop procedure, the more Wisconsin voters and taxpayers will gain. 

Overall, the bill’s voter registration provisions are a welcome effort to make the process more accurate, more efficient, and more secure — and when coupled with Wisconsin’s existing election-day failsafe, shows a broad path for the future. Wisconsin’s election administrators, state and local, have the experience and skill to make smart choices in carrying out the bill’s mandate.  We hope that successful implementation prompts quick expansion well beyond the DOT, to ensure that all of Wisconsin’s citizens might reap the benefits.