How To Have Clean and Complete Voter Rolls
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Our country's strength flows from its willingness to
innovate and improve upon the American experiment in democracy. Recent
presidential elections underscore the importance of revamping the way we
register citizens to vote.
Currently, there are two widespread failures. First, our
voter rolls are not clean and lead to uncertainty about voter fraud, such as
people voting in two states and some places like Alaska having more registered
voters than adults. Second, our voter rolls are not complete, with nearly a
third of eligible voters — about 60 million Americans — not registered to vote.
It's time to establish clean and complete voter rolls to preserve the integrity
of elections and keep close elections in the hands of voters rather than judges.
Having so many unregistered citizens hurts voter turnout
and causes great problems in elections. Under current laws, we naturally see
major voter registration drives during election years. The result is a surge of
registrations right before an election, leading to long lines at polling places,
voters not receiving information about where to vote, and turmoil over
provisional and absentee ballots.
It all too easily leads to potential partisan fraud such as
a Republican-linked voter registration firm in Nevada allegedly throwing out
forms collected from voters registering as Democrats, and accusations of
Democratic urban machines registering dead people to vote in cities like
Milwaukee and Chicago. The inevitable result is judges getting involved in
deciding close elections.
Pointing fingers and name-calling won't help fix the
problem. The way forward is to set a goal of 100 percent voter registration by
establishing registration as a mutual responsibility of citizens and their
government. It's the best way to bring together conservatives concerned about
fraud in elections and liberals concerned about low voter registration. We need
a coherent system that ensures all of us can vote, but none of us can vote more
The United States in fact is one of the few democracies
where the government does not take responsibility for registering its voters,
which is why Iraq already has a higher share of its adult citizens registered to
vote than the United States. The international norm is an orderly process of
automatic voter registration of every citizen who reaches voting age. Because
the government takes a proactive, ongoing role, registration occurs on a steady,
rolling basis instead of in spurts tied to any specific election. Voters receive
a unique identifier that ensures they don't vote more than once.
Not only does such an orderly process provide nearly 100
percent voter registration, but it leads to much cleaner voter rolls and less
voter fraud. With comprehensive databases and full registration, there is no
longer a question about who is or is not registered. Everyone is registered.
By 2006, each state is supposed to have its federally
mandated statewide voter registration database in place, which, if merged with
each state's Census database, would take us a giant step toward universal
registration. The most comprehensive way, however, would be to establish a
national database and federal standards for assuring 100 percent registration of
But in the short term there are immediate easier steps
states and localities can take. We can focus on the population that typically
has the lowest rates of registration: young people. A state or county could have
high schools pre-register to vote all their students as they enter their junior
year. Alternatively, a state's Department of Motor Vehicles could pre-register
all those under 18 as they obtain their learner's permits.
Once these pre-registrants turn 18, their registrations
automatically would become active. They would receive a letter alerting them
about their eligibility to vote, the date of the next election, and their
responsibilities when changing addresses.
Such changes would register far more young people in an
orderly way and generate more understanding of the value of 100 percent
registration. It would provide a means to introduce more young people to the
importance of civic engagement because a natural complement to this policy would
be a "voter's ed" curriculum for high schoolers, just as many have "driver's ed"
now. Over time, as all 18-year-olds were registered to vote, the United States
would move far closer to 100 percent voter registration.
Legislators in states like Illinois and Rhode Island are
preparing legislation for such pre-registration. As we promise to export
democracy abroad, let's take care of business at home. Policymakers should
establish a clear goal: clean and complete voter rolls by the next presidential
election in 2008.
Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote: The Center
for Voting and Democracy,
www.fairvote.org. Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New
America Foundation and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's
Winner Take All Politics,
www.FixingElections.com. Readers may write to them at
firstname.lastname@example.org or FairVote — The Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930
Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912.