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Voter Registration Modernization

Did you know that our voter registration process has barely changed over the past century? It's true. At the dawn of the 19th century, before the Civil War, before the first Model T rolled off the assembly line and before Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call, the Whig Party began to put in place our current voter registration process.  Like the now-extinct Whig Party, our registration system should be a thing of the past.  The way we register voters is inefficient; it sets election officials up for failure by diverting resources and energy from other critical tasks and it prevents more eligible voters from casting a ballot than any other part of the election process. The Lawyers' Committee has been working with coalition partners on a solution - Voter Registration Modernization (VRM).

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What is Voter Registration Modernization?

A broad bipartisan coalition agrees that our antiquated voter registration system is in dire need of an upgrade. VRM will automatically register every eligible American to vote when they turn 18 or become citizens.  Additionally, when voters move their registration will move with them.  Ensuring voter registrations are permanent will especially help the highly mobile, such as students and members of the military and their families.

VRM will also eliminate the tremendous burden on election officials caused by the last minute deluge of applications for voter registration. This will save states and localities millions of dollars in materials and labor. VRM will also help restore confidence in our democracy because the current hodgepodge of rules and regulations leaves the system vulnerable to fraud and manipulation. 

There are three main elements of Voter Registration Modernization:

  • Automatic Registration:  States will register every voter when they turn 18 or become naturalized citizens through information contained in other government lists, such as driving records, assistance rolls and other safeguarded information. 
  • Permanent Registration:  Through change of address and other lists, voters will stay on their states' rolls if they move within that state. 
  • Election Day Correction:  Any voter who either does not show up on the registration rolls or whose registration contains incorrect information will be allowed to register on the spot and cast a regular ballot on Election Day.  

 

Why do we need VRM?

Last year's election season inspired millions of new voters across the country to exercise their civic duty. Unfortunately, the excitement was tempered by the fact that this same increase in voter participation also further exposed cracks that have existed in the system for decades, leading to millions of voters being disenfranchised through no fault of their own. At a Senate Rules Committee hearing on voter registration Harvard Professor Stephen Ansolabehere testified that, "17 percent of the 44 million registered, eligible voters who did not turn out in 2008 stated that they did not vote for administrative reasons" - that's four to five million Americans.

More than one third of the problems reported to Election Protection in 2008 were a result of our antiquated voter registration system.   Those obstacles disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities, low-income Americans, military service members, seniors, students, and Americans with disabilities - groups that are the first to fall through the cracks when our election resources are thin. As of 2006, more than 65 million Americans of voting age - roughly one third of the eligible population - were unregistered:

  • Young Voters:
    • 57% of eligible 18-24 year olds were unregistered
  • Minority Voters:
    • 51%  of eligible Asians were unregistered
    • 46% of eligible Hispanics were unregistered
    • 39% of eligible African Americans were unregistered
  • Less Educated Voters:
    • 53%  of voters with no high school diploma were unregistered
    • 38% of voters with a high school diploma were unregistered
  • Low Income Voters:
    • 49% of voters who earn less than $10,000 per year were unregistered

Registration modernization will ensure that all eligible citizens are able to cast a ballot that is counted. It will eliminate unprocessed applications, voter roll purging, overuse of provisional balloting, and more. A modernized system will also protect voters from people who would manipulate the system by disseminating misinformation about the registration process to voters.

Our outdated voter registration system doesn't just affect voters - it makes it harder for election officials to do their jobs.  In 2008, a surge in new registrations led to a problem that election officials across the country face each election year - a last minute deluge of registration and absentee ballot applications that overwhelms their staff and forces them to make tough decisions about how best to allocate the limited resources at their disposal.  Often times these hard working and dedicated public servants must make difficult decisions between processing new registrations, making changes to existing registrations, and processing absentee ballot requests. 

Modernizing our voter registration system will help all of us. With registration modernization we can streamline the process, eliminate paperwork, and reduce the frequency in which voters have to engage the system. This simple upgrade will save states and localities millions of dollars in materials and labor, and will free up resources for other critical election needs. Additionally, eliminating the deluge of registration forms will give election officials more time and resources to devote to other projects.

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The Growing Chorus for Voter Registration Modernization.  

Voter Registration is on Congress's Radar

At a Senate Rules Committee hearing on Voter Registration, Committee Chairman Senator Schumer called voter registration "the lifeblood of our republic." The Lawyers' Committee's Jonah Goldman testified at the hearing, emphasizing that "each election the voter registration system, this relic of the country's pre-Civil War past, blocks millions of eligible Americans from casting a ballot, distracts election officials from performing critical administrative tasks, and needlessly wastes millions of critical dollars at a time when state and local budgets are stretching every penny.   Congress has the power and the opportunity to modernize this system." For more on the hearing, click here.  

A variety of national media sources have come out in support of Voter Registration Modernization:

 

Setting their differences aside, former general counsels to the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns, Bob Bauer and Trevor Potter, together wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on June 25th, advocating for the revision of our archaic voter registration system.

Having both had first hand experience in the troubles our paper-based voter registration system has caused in recent elections; the two often not-so-like-minded men agree that "bringing our voter registration system into the 21st century must be the priority for improving the election process."  Election officials, voting experts and policymakers all now recognize the current frustration that millions of eligible voters have experienced at the polls when they are turned away due to protections that are mean to prevent registration fraud. (read more)

Also in March, the New York Times voiced their support for registration modernization earlier this year. In an editorial titled "Still Broken," the editorial board said:

The most important change Congress can make is to require universal voter registration. That would put the burden on states to register eligible voters - identifying them from other government lists such as tax and motor vehicle databases - rather than forcing prospective voters to navigate the obstacle-ridden path to the voting rolls. States should also be required to make registration permanent so voters are not purged from the rolls because of a move to a new address or a name change. (read more)

The Times renewed their support in an April editorial, saying "The larger answer to low registration rates is to enact laws requiring universal voter registration, which would put the burden on states to find people - through government lists, including tax records - and register them. But until that happens, the Justice Department should make sure that states follow the motor voter law's more modest mandates." (read more)

For more articles about Voter Registration Modernization, click here.

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Get involved.

Send the 2008 Election Protection Report to Congress

Election Protection released its 2008 preliminary general election report in March.  The report is not just a list of what went wrong how, when and where. It's a path to common-sense election reform that we need if we're going to avoid the mistakes of 2008 in the next election.  We're starting to get Congress' attention, but they have a lot on their plate. Our leaders need to hear from everyone who wants to see fair elections become a priority in Congress. Click here to read the 2008 preliminary Election Protection report and send the report to Congress and ask them to act to modernize our voter registration system!  

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Practical Progressive - Official Selection 2008