Following the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which barred states from denying citizens the right to vote on account of race, Thomas Mundy Peterson, son of a former slave, became the first African American voter when he cast a ballot to revise his town’s charter in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Days after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, Marie Ruoff Byrum weathered the pouring rain in the early hours of August 31, 1920, to become the first woman to cast a ballot in Missouri and one of the first in the United States.
Millions of voters will cast a ballot this year just like these voting pioneers did. And with good reason: there are 1,500 political races and ballot initiatives that will be decided on Election Day 2013. Unfortunately, there are over 50 million eligible Americans who are not yet registered to vote.
Tuesday, September 24, is National Voter Registration Day. Countless organizations and volunteers will mobilize nationwide to register tens of thousands of voters on the ground and online in a single day. By stressing the importance of registering to vote, the coalition hopes to spark voter participation in every election.
National Voter Registration Day will help citizens sort through the complicated voter registration process. But it also brings attention to the urgency to effectively modernize voter registration to ensure that every eligible voter can become and stay a registered voter. Our current system, virtually outdated and paper-based, poses significant challenges to new and old voters alike, including needless errors, confusion, and long lines at polling sites. According to the U.S. Census, 6 million Americans in 2008 did not “vote because they missed a registration deadline or [did not] know how to register.”
Our outdated voter registration system should not be an obstacle to participation in our democracy. States can and should ensure greater registration and participation by modernizing the voter registration system. This can be accomplished by integrating electronic voter registration into government agency transactions; creating an online voter registration and update system; making registration portable, thereby keeping voters on the rolls even when they move; and providing fail-safe procedures to ensure that eligible voters whose information is incorrect or missing can correct these errors at the polls.
These modernization reforms would harness technology to make the registration process more convenient and more secure. States, like Arizona and Washington, that have already adopted one or more of these reforms have witnessed a number of benefits, including increased voter rolls accuracy, cost savings, and higher registration rates.
The current electoral climate underscores the need to participate in our democracy. In the lead-up to the 2012 election, state legislatures introduced an unprecedented wave of restrictive voting legislation that had the potential to keep millions of eligible Americans away from the polls. Strikingly, almost all of these restrictions were blocked or blunted, in part due to citizen-led repeal efforts. Since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling that handicapped the Voting Rights Act, states have been quick to move forward again on legislation that would create unnecessary barriers to the right to vote. Despite tactics to deter and intimidate voter registration and participation, citizens can fight back by not backing down, by registering to vote and turning out on Election Day.
Visit nationalvoterregistrationday.org or OurTime.org/vote to see where you can register to vote or to volunteer in your local area. To show your appreciation for this enormous one-day effort, follow @CelebrateNVRD on Twitter and use the hashtag #CelebrateNVRD.
(Photo: National Voter Registration Day)