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Research Report

Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World

  • Margaret Chen
  • Jennifer S. Rosenberg
Published: June 10, 2009

The United States is one of a few democratic nations that place the entire burden of registering to vote on individual citizens. Today, one-quarter to one-third of all eligible Americans remain unregistered — and thus are unable to cast ballots that will count. Even Americans who are registered risk being blocked from casting a ballot because of problems with our voter registration system — unprocessed registrations, inaccurate purges of names from the voter rolls, and other administrative and human errors. The registration system is as much a problem for the dedicated civil servants who administer our elections as it is for voters. It is costly, inefficient, and insufficiently accurate.

Now, after a decade of controversy over election and voting problems, the United States is again considering poised to reforms to voter registration. For the first time, the Congress is considering voter registration modernization that would enlist empower state governments to assure that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, are on the rolls. Such a step would add tens of millions to the rolls, and better ensure that the information on the rolls stays accurate and up-to-date. Yet one obvious question arises: Can this, in fact, be done?  As this report demonstrates, the systems in a number of the world’s major democracies prove this can be done.

In fact, it has been — in several other major democracies. In every one of these countries, government itself assumes the responsibility of creating and keeping voter rolls, rather than relying on citizens to register themselves and navigate a clunky, outdated, and often inaccurate system.

Of greatest relevance, Canada shares our decentralized federal system. There, provinces create and maintain their own voter rolls, and a federal election authority builds a separate voter roll for use in federal elections that is based in significant part on the provincial rolls and in part on other government lists. When an individual turns eighteen, or becomes a citizen, he or she is added to the rolls. A voter who moves remains on the rolls. The system works efficiently (and with no allegations of fraud). An overwhelming Nninety-three percent of eligible citizens are registered to vote, compared to 68% of Americans who were registered to vote as of the last Census report.
The experience of these other democracies suggests building a modern voter registration system is a surprisingly straightforward task. In recent years, several democracies have moved to take advantage of new technologiesy to help build more complete and accurate voter lists. Their experiences are encouraging. These restructured systems reduce administrative costs and improve the accuracy of voter rolls.

This report is a multi-nation examination of the details of voter registration systems. It examines the way sixteen other countries create and keep voter lists. Many of the nations studied are similar to ours in diverse populations, cultural values, and government structures. Their experiences show the clear benefits to voters, overall taxpayer savings, and best practices that can be employed in the United States as Congress drafts reform legislation (and some pitfalls) of concerted reform.