Crossposted from U.S. News & World Report
While states across the country battle recent efforts to roll back voting rights, 2015 is also shaping up to be a big year for pro-voter reform. Oregon passed a groundbreaking new law in March to automatically register eligible citizens at motor vehicle offices. Hillary Clinton embraced the idea of “universal, automatic registration” as a central campaign plank in June, along with nation-wide early voting and other improvements. And last week, New Jersey’s legislature passed a bill mandating automatic registration, making it the second state to pass this major advance in election law.
New Jersey’s Democracy Act would also institute online registration and two weeks of early voting, making the state a national leader on election administration. But Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, has threatened to veto it. He’s wrong, and here’s why.
New Jersey had record-low participation in 2014, with only 30.4 percent of eligible voters turning out to vote. The rest of the country didn’t do much better; the 37 percent national turnout rate was the lowest in 70 years. A big part of the problem is a voting system that is out of touch with modern life. One in four eligible citizens is not on the rolls, and one in eight registration records is out of date or inaccurate, according to the Pew Center on the States. For those signed up correctly, many states have too few options to fit voting into Americans’ busy schedules.
Citizens want a voting system that is flexible, accurate, and convenient. But outdated technology and thinking hold us back. Despite the ubiquity of computers, too many states still rely on ink and paper for voter registration. This leads to gaps and errors. Voters may have illegible handwriting. Election officials may introduce typos as they log thousands of records. And when voters move or their information changes, records may not be updated.
Error-laden voter rolls hurt election management and create confusion at the polls. If addresses are incorrect, for example, voters might show up at the polls and find their names missing from the rolls. In 2008, this prevented nearly 3 million eligible citizens from voting. In 2012, over 3.6 million Americans experienced registration problems. This leads to longer lines at the polls.
America can do better. Modernizing voter registration can increase accuracy, save money, curb the potential for fraud and add 50 million new voters to the rolls. Early voting will give voters more options to cast a ballot.
The New Jersey and Oregon reforms offer a new model for states. The ultimate goal is universal voter registration. That means all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, are on the rolls, and the government automatically updates voters’ records where possible. Other safeguards, like online and same-day registration, allow voters to ensure the accuracy of their records.
For a decade, an increasing number of states have streamlined registration so citizens can sign up electronically at DMVs and other government offices. Automatic registration takes this one step further. Many state agencies already offer registration opportunities and collect accurate information about eligible citizens. Under automatic registration, the government would seamlessly ensure all those citizens are signed up. No one would be registered against their will; all would have the chance to opt out. And while the New Jersey and Oregon plans offer automatic registration only at DMVs, additional government agencies, like Medicare and military offices, should be added over time to capture all voters. Same-day registration could be added to eliminate gaps.
To be sure, when registering voters, the paramount concern is reliability of information. Automatic registration systems must protect against hackers and identify only eligible citizens. Fortunately, DMV records in Oregon and New Jersey have reliable citizenship information. Other databases must have these safeguards in place before expanding the system.
This groundbreaking reform is more convenient for voters and election officials alike, who would no longer have to deal with unnecessary paperwork. Research shows paperless registration dramatically improves the accuracy and security of the voter rolls and saves states millions of dollars.
Modernizing voter registration is increasingly popular and receives bipartisan support. This year, Republican governors in New Mexico and Florida signed online registration bills, bringing the number of states with that reform to 28. Early voting is similarly popular and has expanded to more than half the states. Both reforms were top recommendations of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, chaired by the top lawyers for the Obama and Romney campaigns.
That’s what makes Christie’s veto threat especially troubling. These reforms would go a long way toward improving New Jersey’s voting system.
We’re already gearing up for the 2016 election. We get our news about the campaigns on our smartphones. Let’s get our voting system to work for the 21st century as well.
Photo Credit: AP