Same Day Registration Means Less Paperwork, Not More

The push for Same Day Registration has encountered a curious adversary in some states this year – county clerks.

The latest example is Utah, where the state Senate killed a SDR bill last week on an 18-10 vote. Under current state law, Utahans must register at least 15 days before an election if they want their ballot to be counted. Since many voters don’t tune in until the waning days of a campaign, arbitrary deadlines like this come as an unwelcome surprise to a lot of people who hope to participate in elections.

House Bill 91 would have fixed that problem by allowing voters to register on Election Day. Even more impressive was the source of its support – while statehouse debates over SDR have generally pitted Democrats against Republicans, Utah’s proposal was bipartisan. It sailed easily through the state House, where the Democratic caucus could meet comfortably in a phone booth, and its primary sponsor in the state Senate was Republican Scott Jenkins.

So it was a surprise when the bill came crashing down in the Senate. News reports gave county election officials credit for orchestrating its defeat with testimony from people like Pat Beckstead, election clerk for Davis County:

Beckstead said Idaho passed a similar measure. . . and she said election results from the Gem State show people delaying registration as a result, with late registration trending above 15 percent. . . . She said her staff struggled to handle 7,500 provisional ballots during the last election, and she thinks the added number would jeopardize election safeguards.

Beckstead is not alone. Fearful of a flood of last-minute paperwork, county clerks in many states have raised concerns about establishing Same Day Registration. For example, resistance from county officials in Washington state convinced lawmakers to abandon a SDR proposal. 

But experience tells us that their worries are overblown.

In fact, Beckstead’s protests only underscore the need for SDR. By her own admission, 15 percent Idaho voters registered on Election Day last year – nearly 175,000 people. Even if a fraction of those voters are guilty of procrastination, as she argued, tens or even hundreds of thousands would have been disenfranchised if SDR was not available.

What’s more, SDR does not add significantly to the cost of administering an election, and may even save money in some cases. Last year, a Demos survey of local election officials found that among those who administer Same Day Registration, it is widely considered to be a bargain – raising turnout significantly without adding to costs in any meaningful way. In Wisconsin, where SDR has been an option since 1975, a recent report by the state Government Accountability Board found that ending Election Day registration would actually raise costs by as much as $14.5 million.

Beckstead’s worries about election “safeguards” are equally misplaced. Voter fraud is rare, but voter impersonation is all but unheard of – a Demos report found only one case among the millions of votes cast in SDR states between 2002 and 2005.

No wonder Wisconsin’s county officials resisted efforts to repeal the well-used SDR process. It might be time they shared their experiences with their colleagues around the country.

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