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Scott Gessler’s Weak Case Against Same Day Registration in Colorado

Brenden Timpe

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has come out swinging against a proposal to allow voters in his state to register on Election Day. Coloradans currently must register at least 29 days ahead of time, and Gessler is dusting the cobwebs off a well-worn bogeyman in an attempt to keep it that way. In a recent op-ed in the Denver Post, Gessler wrote:

Election Day registration allows people to vote on the same day they register. Unfortunately, this opens the door to fraud and error, and it creates huge problems for administering elections. Indeed, experience in other states shows that Election Day registration is a real problem.

Gessler's opposition to SDR comes as no surprise. As Secretary of State, he has upset voting rights groups by waging a campaign to intimidate and purge voters. He also filed a lawsuit to prevent local governments from mailing ballots to voters – including soldiers serving overseas – who were inactive in 2010. 

Gessler’s motives aside, is there any substance to his claims that polling places would be overrun by fraud once Same Day Registration is enacted?

Fortunately for our democratic system of government, there is virtually no evidence of voter impersonation in our elections. Gessler points to a report alleging 113 cases of “voter fraud” in Minnesota during the 2008 election, as well as a police report dating to the 2004 election that tracked inconsistencies in Wisconsin’s voter rolls. But nonpartisan investigations have found these reports to be unfounded – or, at worst, isolated or highly overstated cases adding up to a tiny sliver of the electorate. A Demos analysis of SDR states conducted by Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and an expert on voter fraud, revealed that between 2002 and 2005 just one case of voter impersonation occurred at the polls in all SDR states during a period where millions of vote were cast. An extensive investigation of fraud allegations by the New Hampshire Attorney General after the 2004 election found no evidence of individuals voting more than once in an election where nearly 700,000 ballots were cast. Authorities ultimately prosecuted three individuals for providing false addresses and two others for using false or forged names.

Scott Gessler should spend more time talking to his fellow election officials in SDR states. If he did, he'd find that these officials don't believe that SDR invites fraud. Local elections officials in SDR states who have participated in two Demos surveys have reported that current fraud-prevention measures suffice to ensure the integrity of elections. A number of officials who oversee SDR systems have stepped forward to support the expansion of SDR to other states and allay concerns that this reform will increase fraud.

In recent testimony to the Maryland legislature, Steven Carbó of Demos noted that:

states impose heavy penalties for voter fraud; voters are required to show documentation for proof of residency; and they must sign an oath attesting to their identity and citizenship.  And unlike registration by mail, SDR requires eligible voters to attest to their identity face-to-face before an elections official.  

Yet if fraud is generally rare in U.S. elections, disenfranchisement is common. Millions of Americans are disenfranchised every election year because of outdated registration and voting systems. Millions more don't vote because of needless obstacles to registration, like the deadline that requires Coloradans to register 29 days before an election -- despite the fact that studies consistently show that many voters only become interested in an election within a few weeks or even days of Election Day.

Same Day Registration is an effective way to prevent disenfranchisement and ensure the opportunity to vote. As Carbó pointed out:

A previously registered voter who only learns on Election Day that her name has been left off the voter rolls can simply update a faulty registration record or register anew with SDR, and cast a ballot that will be counted. 

If Gessler is really interested in making it “easy to vote, but tough to cheat,” his best bet is to support Same Day Registration along with common-sense steps to modernize the registration process – such as registration that is automatically updated when a voter’s address changes.

The fact that Gessler trumpets Colorado's turnout rate of 70 percent in 2012, among the highest in the nation, only shows how complacent many U.S. election officials are about voter participation rates that lag well behind most other advanced countries, where voting is more accessible. Turnout in many European countries is over 80 percent. Nearly a third of eligible Coloradoans did not vote in the 2012 election -- over 1 million people

SDR is a proven way to boost turnout among eligible voters. Studies of SDR suggest that this reform could brings tens of thousands of new voters to the polls in Colorado.