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Universal Voter Registration: A New Initiative to Increase Electoral Participation and Reduce Voter Suppression

The elections of 2008 served as a critical test of the nation's election systems.  With changes in voting machines and procedures, coupled with expectations of record voter turnout, election administrators held their breath and hoped their system wouldn't fail. 

While the system didn't fail, voters faced serious obstacles in exercising their right to vote.  Voter registration ended up being the problem that affected the largest number of voters.  Even before the first votes were cast, it was apparent that our voter registration systems were woefully inadequate.  While in other nations 90% or more of the eligible voter population is registered to vote, in the United States less than 75% of eligible voters are registered.

We can do better. 

The lack of registered voters was not the only aspect of our voter-initiated registration systems that drew notice this year.  The right-wing tried to divert blame for faulty registration procedures onto groups working to register low-income and minority voters, particularly promoting attacks on the community group ACORN, instead of recognizing that the problem was in the heavy barriers to people registering to vote in the first place.

Recognizing the significant challenges to voter registration from mismanagement and suppression, and seeking a new level of security for the right to vote, momentum is developing for a comprehensive solution - universal voter registration.  As this Dispatch outlines, under a system of universal registration, government would take primary responsibility for registering all voters. 

The United States stands apart among advanced democracies for the onerous nature of its current voter registration laws and practices.  These laws and practices by nature restrict voter registration and have been easily manipulated by political actors to be even more restrictive than intended.  Many election reform advocates, state legislators, and election law scholars believe now is the time to move forward deliberately toward universal registration and in turn cut the Gordian knot of voter suppression and partisan skirmishing that has been wound by the current system.  Progressive States Network will be working with advocates to help move forward this new initiative for universal registration in states across the country.

How the Right-wing Used Voter Suppression to Deny the Right to Vote

In an election year where increased turnout was likely to determine the viability of the candidate for president, it was inevitable that the right-wing would engage in a host of voter suppression tactics, as PSN documented leading up to Election Day (see here and here and here).

In order to divert attention from those voter suppression efforts, the right-wing promoted ACORN as the poster child for supposed attempts to register people who are not eligible to vote (despite no evidence of significant illegal voting in this or past elections).   While there is no evidence that ACORN intentionally filed false registrations -- in fact, there is significant evidence that they did perform due diligence in flagging potentially problematic registrations and reported employees suspected of wrongdoing to authorities -- it is clear that the right-wing vote suppressors were successful in casting a cloud over ACORN's work, if not to actually undermining their efforts.

What the ACORN incident illustrates, as do the host of right-wing voter suppression schemes that have become perennial accompaniments to our elections, is that voter registration remains a critical battleground upon which parties, candidates, and political operatives contest elections. In a period when solid majorities of voters support progressive reforms such as universal healthcare, paid sick days, increasing in the minimum wage, and making necessary investments in schools and infrastructure without privatization, this battle can only serve to limit progressive electoral gains and therefore movement toward these goals.  The most troubling aspect of these suppression schemes is that in many states those who seek to limit registrations are winning.  The most popular strategies for reducing registrations are:

  1. Purging voters from the voter rolls directly - Lax oversight and poor implementation, sometimes combined with partisan political intent, have allowed thousands of voters to be erroneously removed from the lists of registered voters.
  2. Onerous voter identification requirements - States use strict "no match, no vote" rules to reject registration applications where the personal information of registrants in error-ridden state and databases cannot be matched exactly with the information provided on voter registration forms.
  3. Challenges and voter caging - Partisans use expansive voter challenge laws (originally designed to disenfranchise black voters) to contest the eligibility of voters, often hundreds or thousands at a time, without any direct evidence that their registrations are invalid.

All of these tactics were used throughout battleground states this year, in many instances generating significant media attention.  While media attention of efforts to disenfranchise voters are welcome, most of the coverage centered on false accusations of voter fraud or the potential for fraud being shouted by right-wing forces.  The climate of fear and suspicion that conservatives have generated is the source of much support for the strategies of disenfranchisement listed above, as well as others such as proof-of-citizenship laws.

21st Century Registration Practices

While progressive politicians and advocates have been struggling to prevent the disenfranchisement of critical constituencies such as minorities and youth, from the individual voter's perspective what she sees is a system that is difficult to navigate, and given our increasingly mobile society, requires continual upkeep of her registration.  While taking the initiative to vote falls on the voter, the population is increasingly disserved by registration systems that in essence ask the voter to petition the government for the opportunity to vote, and to do so once again every time they move, even within the same state.  So while the suppression activities that make registration a political battleground in turn make universal voter registration an imperative for progressive activists, for an average voter the story is merely one of a substandard government service resulting from poor policy.

Current voter-initiated registration procedures are also a hassle for election administrators.  Instead of spreading voter registration throughout the year, voter-initiated registration causes a flood of new registrations at just the time that election officials are already the busiest -- in the run-up to an election.  Further, the elections that are the most demanding to administer -- presidential elections -- are also the ones that generate the most registrations.  Universal voter registration would eliminate much of this problem as new registrations and updates would be added much more evenly throughout the election cycle.

Using Voter Databases to Track and Keep Enrolled Registered Voters: The things that make all of these problems solvable are the statewide voter databases that were mandated under the Help America Vote Act.  This act requires that each state maintain a database of all registered voters.  This means that instead of records being isolated in local jurisdictions, states can build integrated voter registration systems that automatically add voters to the system and track them as they move, thereby maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls.

While our goal is for every eligible voter to be registered automatically throughout the country, there are a variety of steps states can take to get closer to that goal.  The most important thing is that states make a commitment to removing registration as a barrier to voting by taking responsibility to register as many voters as possible and keep them registered when they move.  Some states are in a position to move boldly in this area with dramatic reforms of their registration practices, and others need to focus on cleaning up the systems they have followed by deliberate, measured steps in expanding the percentage of citizens they register.  Whatever the situation of a particular state, there are one or more strategies for achieving universal voter registration that are available to them.  Various options are outlined below, beginning with those available to states with significant current deficiencies in their voter registration practices.

Steps Toward Universal Registration

Without taking the plunge to achieve 100% voter registration, there are two main ways for states to grow voter rolls organically at a much higher rate.  These steps focus on registering young people and other groups who have consistently been underrepresented in the electorate.

National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) Compliance and Expansion: Under the federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), states are required to provide citizens with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew a driver's license, or when they apply, re-certify, renew or change their address at a public or disability assistance agency.  Additionally, NVRA requires that at least some other state agencies participate.  NVRA compliance is a natural area on which to focus resources in states that are currently failing to register significant numbers of voters at government agencies.  Several states that have recently prioritized compliance are seeing the number of NVRA registrations climb fast.

Beyond ensuring compliance, there are also opportunities to expand NVRA that will help states register significantly more voters.  There are two basic ways to do this:

  • Increase the number of government agencies that offer registration - Beyond departments of motor vehicles, and public or disability services agencies, there are literally dozens of government agencies that could be used to register voters, the most pressing being secondary schools and colleges.  Departments of taxation, public hospitals, jails, and departments of labor are other likely candidates.
  • Convert to an opt-out system where voters are registered when they provide personal information to a government agency unless they decline - Currently NVRA requires that states offer agency clients the opportunity to register and assistance doing so if it is requested.  However, this opt-in system can be converted to opt-out through a statutory amendment.  In an opt-out system every time an NVRA agency requested a clients personal information that information would automatically be used to register the person or update their registration if necessary.  The person would have an option to opt-out, either because they were already properly registered, because they are ineligible, or for some other personal reason.

Early Registration: Currently some states allow future voters to register at either 16 or 17-years-of-age.  These registrations enter the system as inactive and automatically activate on the voter's 18th birthday (or earlier for the primary if a state allows 17-year-old primary voting).  Early registration can also be coupled with voter education that is specifically targeted to future voters as their registrations become active.  Other important synergies exist with designating secondary schools as voter registration agencies and requiring voter registration as a requirement for graduation or withdrawal from school. Combined with these two reforms, early registration could bring a state very far along in registering every citizen as they become eligible to vote.

Strategies for Building Universal Registration

In states with good current registration procedures we encourage progressive leaders to show leadership by advancing policies to actively create comprehensive voter rolls that include all eligible voters.

  • Mining Government Databases: States have numerous databases that house the information needed to register voters including those maintained by departments of motor vehicles, departments of taxation, and social service agencies.  Where they provide the necessary eligibility information these databases can be used to construct a nearly complete voter roll or to fill in the holes in the existing rolls.  However, it is important that safeguards be in place so that errors in agency databases don't get transferred to the voter rolls.
  • Enumeration: The most ambitious strategy for constructing the voter rolls is an actual census of eligible voters conducted every year.  Like the federal census this would likely begin by doing a mass mailing to every residence in a voting jurisdiction asking that they sign and return voter registration forms for every eligible voter in the household.  This would be followed by door-to-door canvases of residences that did not generate a response and attempts to locate voters without mailing addresses such as the homeless.  Massachusetts currently uses such a system to construct its jury pool.

Safeguards to keep voters in the system: If complete voter rolls are to be maintained there must be adequate processes for tracking address changes, as well as opportunity to amend a registration or register on election day.  Both of these reforms are important on there own, but are essential in attaining universal voter registration.

  • Permanent Registration: No matter the system used to register voters in the first place, an essential aspect of maintaining complete voter rolls is updating registrations when people move.  At a minimum this requires that states give voters an opportunity to update their registration at the polls.  More ambitious is actively tracking voters using change of address databases, typically the database maintained by the US Postal Service.  Minnesota passed a law instituting such a system last legislative session.  It is important to note that voters must not be purged from the rolls at their previous address until it is confirmed that their new address is the one they will be using for voter registration purposes; failure to do so would result in the erroneous removal of many people, most typically college students and deployed members of the military.
  • Election Day Registration (EDR): The one fail-safe that can ensure that every eligible voter is permitted to cast a ballot is allowing registration at the polls, as is done in a dozen states.  And among all discrete election reforms EDR appears to have the largest impact on turnout.

Momentum is Building for Change

Spurred in part by the widespread problems with voter registration that continue to come to light, and that were clearly apparent in the most recent election, many important voices are making a call for universal voter registration.

  1. Leaders among the advocacy and policy development community have identified universal voter registration as an important part of guaranteeing the right of every eligible citizen to vote.  Principal advocates include the Brennan Center for Justice which is leading the development of universal registration policies, pushing for a federal mandate and funding, and counseling supporters in the states; FairVote is also taking a leading role with their efforts to promote youth registration and voting, along with other reforms; and Demos has been at the forefront of efforts to improve NVRA compliance, especially at public assistance agencies.
  2. Leading election experts have joined their voices to the chorus with Loyola Professor Rick Hasen, Common Cause Director of Research Tova Wang, and federal Election Assistance Commission Chairwoman Rosemary E. Rodriguez endorsing the idea.  It has also received favorable mention from Ohio State Law Professor Dan Tokaji.
  3. Editorial boards are also joining in, with early endorsements from the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

Among these opinion leaders and among some politicians, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, a consensus is forming that, as expressed by the Senator: "A system of automatic registration, in which the government bears more of the responsibility for assembling accurate and secure lists of eligible voters, is a necessary reform," adding that "All eligible Americans should be able to cast their ballot without barriers, and the registration problems we saw on Tuesday and during the weeks that preceded Election Day make clear that the system needs improvement."  Progressives have a specific interest in moving toward such a system in order to bring as many people into the electoral process as possible.  But beyond that, building modern, efficient voter registration systems will benefit all voters and is the type of competent governance that forward thinking legislators can provide to move their states, and the nation, forward.

Resources

Progressive States Network - Universal Voter Registration
Brennan Center for Justice - Universal Voter Registration Policy Brief
FairVote - Universal Voter Registration
New America Foundation - Universal Voter Registration
Demos - National Voter Registration Act Compliance
Minnesota Permanent Registration Statute