Opinion Editorial on Youth Voter Registration
How to Expand the Voter Rolls
A country that should be encouraging more people to vote is still using an archaic voter registration system that creates barriers to getting a ballot. In 2008, 75 million eligible people did not vote in the presidential election, and 80 percent of them were not registered.
The vast majority of states rely on a 19th-century registration method: requiring people to fill out a paper form when they become eligible to vote, often at a government office, and to repeat the process every time they move. This is a significant reason why the United States has a low voter participation rate.
The persistence of the paper system is all the more frustrating because a growing number of states have shown that technology can get more people on voter rolls. There’s no reason why every state cannot automatically register eligible voters when they have contact with a government agency. The most common method, now used in 17 states, electronically sends data from motor vehicle departments to election offices.
Ten states allow people to register online, and others, including California, are preparing to do so. In Washington State, for example, anyone with a driver’s license or state ID can register over the Internet. The paperless systems are much cheaper than the old forms and far more accurate. A recent study by the Pew Center on the States found that 24 million voter registrations (about 12 percent) are significantly inaccurate because they had not been updated or were erroneous to start with.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that paperless systems have doubled the number of registrations through motor vehicle departments in Kansas and Washington State. In South Dakota, seven times as many people registered to vote at motor vehicle offices after an automated system began in 2006. Online registration is particularly appealing to young voters; in Arizona, a new system has increased the registration of voters ages 18 to 24 from 29 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2008.
The obsolete paper system has resulted in an overall registration rate of only 68 percent in the United States. Canada, by contrast, registers 93 percent of its population, using a computerized system that automatically gathers records from tax forms, the military and vital statistics agencies, as well as motor vehicle offices.
This country has a long and terrible tradition of erecting barriers to participation. In earlier eras, the obstacles were overt, like literacy tests to keep minorities and poor people off the rolls. Recent methods are subtler but still harmful. In 2004, Ohio briefly banned registration forms not printed on 80-pound paper to make it easier to invalidate minority voter drives without access to the forms. Even now, many Republican lawmakers are doing everything they can to maintain intimidating requirements.
Florida, for example, has put stringent restrictions on voter registration drives, imposing fines and even criminal penalties for the slightest infraction of complex rules. Groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote say they won’t participate in such a system. Election officials say the rules limiting these drives are a significant reason that new registrations are lower than they were four years ago.
Since President Obama was elected with help from a surge of support from new voters, similar laws have been passed or introduced in South Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, and several other states as part of a Republican effort to restrict voting by groups that tend to vote Democratic.
It should be self-evident that the country benefits when more citizens are engaged in the electoral process, but too many lawmakers are trying to reduce participation for short-term political gain. Given the progress some states have achieved with new registration methods, it’s time for Congress to step in and require that all states bring their systems into the digital age.