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Modernize Voter Registration

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

Published: February 4, 2016

Our demo­cracy is a point of pride, but millions of eligible citizens go to vote only to find their names miss­ing from the rolls — often, wrongly deleted. In our highly mobile soci­ety, others simply fall from the rolls when they move. Amer­ica’s outdated and error-prone voter regis­tra­tion system, which has not kept pace with modern life, is largely to blame. It erects need­less barri­ers, fuels voter frus­tra­tion, and creates long lines.

This anti­quated system is the reason 50 million Amer­ic­ans, nearly one in four eligible voters, are not signed up.[1] In 2008 alone, approx­im­ately 3 million eligible citizens attemp­ted to vote but could not thanks to regis­tra­tion errors, and in 2012, millions again exper­i­enced regis­tra­tion prob­lems at the polls.[2]


Auto­matic, perman­ent voter regis­tra­tion is a trans­form­at­ive policy innov­a­tion. It would perman­ently add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, save money, increase accur­acy, curb the poten­tial for fraud, and protect the integ­rity of our elec­tions.

While citizens have a respons­ib­il­ity to take part in the demo­cratic process, govern­ment should also do its part by clear­ing bureau­cratic obstacles to the ballot box. A modern voter regis­tra­tion system would do that with four key compon­ents:

  • Auto­matic regis­tra­tion. States adopt elec­tronic systems for receiv­ing and trans­mit­ting regis­tra­tions and also take respons­ib­il­ity for sign­ing up citizens so they are auto­mat­ic­ally added to the voter rolls when they inter­act with govern­ment agen­cies, unless they opt out.
  • Port­ab­il­ity. Once citizens are signed up to vote, they remain registered when they move within their states.
  • Online regis­tra­tion.
  • Elec­tion Day safety net. This gives people the oppor­tun­ity to register or update their inform­a­tion at the polls.

This should become the new national stand­ard. The best way to get there is for Congress to mandate a modern voter regis­tra­tion system.  

Why This Can Be Achieved

We know this can be done because the federal govern­ment has made similar improve­ments in the past. In 2002, in response to concerns over the elec­tion system after the 2000 Flor­ida debacle, the Help Amer­ica Vote Act required states to adopt compu­ter­ized voter rolls and upgrade their voting machines, provid­ing federal funds to help them do it. Congress can fund a similar upgrade for the regis­tra­tion system now.

The trans­form­at­ive break­through came in 2015. Cali­for­nia and Oregon enacted auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion through the DMVs. All who obtain a driver’s license will be auto­mat­ic­ally registered to vote, unless they opt out. Prop­erly imple­men­ted, these could add up to 6 million voters to the rolls. The model would work for other govern­ment agen­cies as well. This approach has caught atten­tion through­out the coun­try. In New Jersey, the legis­lature enacted a similar meas­ure, though Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, and lawmakers are now look­ing to move it forward as a ballot initi­at­ive. Activ­ists are ready­ing similar propos­als in states from Illinois to Arizona. National polit­ical figures have embraced the idea. Former Secret­ary of State Hillary Clin­ton proposed univer­sal regis­tra­tion for all citizens who turn 18. Sen. Bernie Sanders has endorsed a similar idea.

Mean­while, elements of modern­ized voter regis­tra­tion systems are also passing in many states — and the results are encour­aging:

  • Elec­tron­ic­ally trans­fer­ring regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion helps increase regis­tra­tion rates. In South Dakota, within a few years, the regis­tra­tion rate at the state motor vehicle agency increased seven-fold.
  • Online regis­tra­tion reaches voters where they are — espe­cially young people. In Arizona, regis­tra­tion rates for 18– to 24-year-olds doubled in two years from 29 percent to 48 percent in 2004 and to 53 percent in 2008.[3] Now, more than 30 states already or will soon allow citizens to register to vote online.
  • Modern­iz­a­tion also saves money. Arizon­a’s Mari­copa County (Phoenix) found that processing a paper regis­tra­tion form costs 83 cents, compared to an aver­age of 3 cents for applic­a­tions received elec­tron­ic­ally through the DMV or online.[4]

These reforms also respond directly to concerns about the integ­rity of our elec­tions. Some fear that deceased voters and duplic­ate regis­tra­tions could help unscru­pu­lous people manip­u­late close contests. But because voters are send­ing current inform­a­tion into the system and correct­ing errors on Elec­tion Day, outdated or duplic­ate records can be elim­in­ated. And auto­matic regis­tra­tion and online systems elim­in­ate paper — which leaves leave even less room for human error from bad hand­writ­ing, mishand­ling paper forms, or manual data entry.

A modern system effect­ively coun­ters the threat of fraud and will boost voters’ confid­ence in our system.


Next: Restore the Voting Rights Act

[1] Pew Center on the States, Inac­cur­ate, Costly and Inef­fi­cient: Evid­ence that Amer­ica’s Voter Regis­tra­tion System Needs an Upgrade 1 (2012), avail­able at­cur­ate-costly-and-inef­fi­cient-evid­ence-that-amer­icas-voter-regis­tra­tion-system-needs-an-upgrade.

[2] Michael Wald­man, Hillary’s Game-Chan­ging Voting Reform, Politico Magazine, June 10, 2015,­ton-2016-voting-reform-118761.html#.VbZdK­vn­qU1V.

[3] Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, The Case for Auto­matic, Perman­ent Voter Regis­tra­tion 10 (2015), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­­a­tions/Case_for_Auto­matic_Perman­ent_Voter_Regis­tra­tion.pdf

[4] Ponoroff, supra note 19, at 12.