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This National Voter Registration Day It's Time for Universal Voter Registration

Liz Kennedy

Today is National Voter Registration Day. Almost 2,000 partners around the country—student groups, educational institutions, unions, faith groups, civic leagues, libraries, worker centers, and elections agencies—are promoting opportunities for individuals to register to vote. Volunteers will spend hundreds of hours doing face-to-face outreach, technology will help voters find registration drives or, if available, register online, and tens of thousands of voters are expected to register to vote in a single day. This is a wonderful testament to civic organization in America.

But even with these laudable efforts, too many unnecessary bureaucratic barriers block the ability of eligible persons to register to vote.

Our voter registration systems are outdated and poorly functioning. Many today will ask their fellow citizens “would you like to register to vote?” but we should also ask why we don’t yet have a system of universal voter registration in 2014, when we have an urgent need and the technical capabilities to make it a reality.

Universal or automatic voter registration shifts the burden of voter registration from the individual to the state. A democratic government has a duty to facilitate and promote civic participation, since it receives its legitimacy through the consent of the governed. A universal voter registration program ensures that eligible persons can exercise their freedom to vote unless they opt-out, rather than putting the burden on the majority of citizens who want to and do participate in the political life of the country to opt-in. That is the correct balance to strike in a democracy.

Our electoral process serves crucial functions, including choosing elected representatives, setting the course for public policy, and allowing individuals to express their views on the public issues that impact their lives, families, and communities. But elections don’t serve these purposes well if we don’t all participate, and we have a voter participation problem in this country. In 2012, almost 61 million Americans voted for Mitt Romney, and almost 66 million Americans voted for President Obama, but over 90 million eligible American citizens did not vote at all.

Our voter registration system needs to be changed so it is used as a tool, not a barrier, for civic engagement. “Registration continues to create significant barriers to getting into the electoral system and to voting on Election Day” according to Harvard Professor Stephen Ansolabehere. He found that in the 2008 election 2 to 3 million registered voters were prevented from voting because of registration or other authentication problems, and 9 million eligible Americans were not registered because of residency rules or registration deadlines.

In 2012, approximately 51 million eligible Americans—a quarter of eligible voters—were still not registered to vote. These missing voters are disproportionately low-income voters, people of color, and young Americans. There is also a significant gap in turnout based on income levels in the U.S.: in 2012, only 47 percent of eligible voters in the lowest income bracket voted, while 80 percent of voters in the highest income bracket voted, an income gap in voting of over 30 percent. Right now, racial and class gaps in registration result in a skewed electorate – one that is whiter, wealthier, and older than out nation’s citizenry as a whole. Surely this is one explanation why research shows that government is more responsive to the policy preferences of the donor class—also markedly whiter, wealthier, and older than the general public - than to average Americans, even when their public policy preferences differ greatly from those held by the majority.

It is important to note that while today’s rigid registration requirements can stand in the way of voter participation, once they are registered citizens are very likely to vote. In 2008, 90 percent of the people who were registered to vote actually voted, while the voting rate among all citizens of voting age was only 64 percent.

Luckily, we have what Yale Professor Heather Gerken refers to as “an obvious solution.” “We could do what other democracies do” she suggests, and “register everyone automatically.” Indeed, Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, and Canada successfully use government-run databases to develop voter lists.

So how would such a program work? States should engage in data sharing between their own agencies such as DMVs, public service agencies, and boards of elections, and amongst states. Citizens frequently believe that when they tell one government agency that they’re moving the information will be shared intra- & inter-governmentally, and it’s time our public services match the public’s expectations. The presumption should be that whenever government agencies are in a position to verify a person’s residence and eligibility, those voters should be automatically added to the state’s statewide voter registration list.

States are already required to offer voter registration services through their departments of motor vehicles and public service agencies by the National Voter Registration Act, which is a tremendously important registration reform. The NVRA requires Departments of Motor Vehicles to treat every driver’s license application as a simultaneous voter registration application (unless the applicant doesn’t sign the registration application), and requires all changes of address submitted to the DMV to be forwarded to the election authorities, updating the eligible voter’s registration unless they opt-out. The NVRA also requires any office that provides public assistance or provides services to persons with disabilities to offer voter registration services. Though the Presidential Commission on Election Administration had cause to refer to it as “the election statute most often ignored,” enforcement work by Demos and partners has led to more than 2.5 million additional voter registration applications from public services.

Many tools have already been developed to improve the quality of voter registration lists, including protections for data security and integrity.

For example, the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) is currently being run by eleven states and Washington, D.C., and this data exchange alerts states when eligible voters have moved into their jurisdiction so the state can do outreach to these individuals to give them the tools to register to vote at their new address. This program also helps states improve the accuracy of their registration lists because they receive reliable data that enables them to remove outdated registrations (in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act). It is just one step further for a state to confirm eligibility and automatically register the new voter, rather than just sending them a postcard telling them where they can register.

Automatic registration isn’t wholly foreign in our country. For example, the Selective Service already takes it upon itself to automatically register the majority of its target population by partnering with government agencies such as departments of motor vehicles and education. By taking an active role, the Selective Service and its partner agencies were found to have initiated nearly 3 out of 4 of registrations. More than sixty percent of eligible men were automatically registered when they interacted with other government agencies, most often in a manner that required no action by the registrant.

Recently, Oregon came close to adopting a system of automatic registration. Individuals would have been automatically registered to vote when a state agency received age, residence, and citizenship data that allowed the state to confirm eligibility, and an electronic signature. Starting January 1, 2014, eligible individuals who had records in the DMV database (including non-driver ID cards) would have been automatically registered; the program would have then expanded to include data from other government agencies. Hawaii, Texas, and Florida have also considered automatic voter registration legislation in recent years, and Minnesota almost adopted a program of automatic voter registration back in 2009. Louisiana has begun to allow 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote when they interact with the department of motor vehicles; these voters are automatically added to the voter registration list when they turn eighteen.

As for cost, election administrators already spend approximately one-third of their budgets on registration. Canada, which automatically registers its citizens, spends just 35 cents per voter to register its citizens, and yet they’ve managed to register ninety-three percent of the country’s eligible voters.

We have the technology to execute universal voter registration, now it is a matter of putting the policy building blocks into place state by state. We get what we expect from and invest in our electoral system, and Americans should have higher expectations for the design of voter registration in this country. We commend the many partners and individuals that are participating in National Voter Registration Day today, and we look forward to shifting the burden of registration so that it is the government’s responsibility to register its citizens to vote every day.