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Holder Talks Up Automatic Voter Registration

David Callahan

Attorney General Eric Holder was in Boston yesterday, speaking at the Kennedy Library about voting issues. His speech covered a number of topics, but one part that jumped out to us was Holder's embrace of shifting the responsibility to register voters away from individuals and to government through a system of automatic voter registration.

Here's what Holder said:

According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of the 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the 2008 presidential election were not eligible to cast a ballot simply because they were not registered. Of these, it’s likely that some failed to register because – like one in every nine Americans – they had moved sometime during the previous year, and were unaware that, in most cases, their voter registration hadn’t moved with them. Other would-be voters might not have realized that the deadline for registering often comes as much as a full month before Election Day. And even some who did attempt to register may have been discouraged by cumbersome and outdated procedures, needlessly complex rules, improperly processed applications, and simple human errors that leave the system riddled with mistakes.

Fortunately, modern technology provides ways to address many of the problems that impede the efficient administration of elections, and to bring our elections into the 21st century. For example, by creating a system of automatic, portable registration – in which government officials use existing databases, with appropriate privacy protections, to automatically register every eligible voter in America and enable their registration to move when they do, rather the current system in which voters must navigate complicated and often-changing voter registration rules – we could not only improve the integrity of our elections, but save precious taxpayer resources. 

Holder's last point, about saving money, is an important one that proponents of automatic registration need to explore further. The logic here seems clear enough: local government spend a fortune on voter registration related activities, and it's not hard to imagine substantial cost savings from a more modern and centralized system -- just as our healthcare system is now working to put medical records online. 

Let's hope that Holder and the Justice Department seriously pursue this idea in President Obama's second term. 

There's one other part of Holder's speech that I can't resist quoting: 

Of course, at every turn, we must remain vigilant against voter fraud in all its forms.   But we must also embrace the reality that experts on all sides of this debate have found – and which I’ve seen firsthand, as a young attorney in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section: that in-person voter fraud remains rare; and that the alleged tension between having accessible election systems – and having election systems that are free from fraud – is simply not real.

The fact that the nation's top law enforcement officer is not worried about voter fraud and personally has experience investigating this area should get more attention. If the AG isn't worried about fraud, your typical state legislator who knows little about this issue shouldn't be worried about fraud, either.