Voter registration reform

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Voter registration is the foundation on which our election structure is based. If voters aren't aware of their rights and obligations, if the laws are unclear, or if voter rolls aren't accurate, fewer voters make it to the polls, and our elections suffer.

Voter registration has also been at the heart of one of the most heated controversies of the 2008 elections: Allegations of voter registration fraud against ACORN have resulted in criminal investigations, threats of violence, and widespread examination of the pay-per-registration system of enrolling new voters.

Universal voter registration

Universal national voter registration

One of the most wide-spread proposals is the creation of a system of automatic or universal voter registration. Wendy R. Weiser, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, has spoken in favor of universal registration. "This means the registration process would no longer serve as a barrier to the right to vote. It would also eliminate the ACORN issue and all the gaming of the system." In October 2008, The Brennan Center released a report, (read summary) (download PDF), calling for a standardized system of adding voters to the voter polls. From the report:

Today we have the opportunity for a major breakthrough for effective democracy. The 2008 election saw a record number of new voters. New technology and the implementation of new federal laws make it possible to vault over existing voter registration challenges. The United States can move to a system of automatic voter registration—a system where every eligible citizen is able to vote because the government has taken the steps to make it possible for them to be on the voter rolls, permanently. Citizens must take responsibility to vote—but government should do its part by clearing away obstacles to their full participation. Today’s voter registration system is one such obstacle.

In an automatic voter registration system, it would be the government's obligation to ensure that every eligible citizen was registered to vote. Individual citizens could opt out if they wished, but the registration process itself would no longer serve as a barrier to the right to vote.

Federal action can begin to move the country toward this goal in short order. A system of automatic registration would build on existing policies and innovations undertaken by state and local officials. The next Congress can substantially speed up the process by:

  • Establishing a national mandate for automatic voter registration;
  • Providing federal funds for states taking steps toward automatic voter registration;
  • Requiring “permanent voter registration” systems, so voters can register once and stay on the rolls when they move; and
  • Requiring Election Day registration, so eligible voters whose names do not appear on the voter rolls can register and vote on the same day.

Immediate reforms suggested by the Brennan Center report include:

  1. Mandate that the states put systems in place that would phase in automatic voter registration, while preserving the states' ability to experiment with different systems.
  2. Require states to immediately implement permanent registration, so that voters wouldn't have to re-register if they moved within a state.
  3. Require states to implement Election Day registration, as a fail-safe mechanism for eligible voters missing from the voter rolls for any reason.
  4. Provide the funding that states would need to ensure that every eligible voter is registered.

Automatic voter registration

In an automatic voter registration system, all eligible citizens are added to the voter rolls. Certain events -- reaching their 18th birthday, enrolling in governmental programs, becoming a naturalized citizen -- trigger that person's addition to the voter rolls.

From the Brennan Center Report:

An automatic voter registration system creates voter rolls that are as comprehensive as possible well in advance of Election Day and provides a fail-safe mechanism if an eligible voter shows up at the polls but cannot be found on the list. Such systems are routine in other countries. They use different techniques for building their lists, all of which have one thing in common: the government bears the burden of registering every eligible voter.

Other proposals for expanding registration and voting

Many voter's rights groups are working on voter registration reform. Other proposals for expanding registration and simplifying voting include:

National picture ID card

A national picture ID card ensures everyone has a valid ID which they can present at the polls. It eliminates the need for a separate voter registration. However, privacy concerns may be raised.

Register during national census

Census takers could be empowered to register citizens, or at least distribute registration applications. However, since the census occurs only once every 10 years, this would be of limited impact in reaching new voters. In addition, both privacy[1] and minority-outreach[2] issues are a concern.

Tying post office change-of-address cards to voter registration

A higher degree of information could be shared between the United States Postal Service and local election officials. When a voter notifies the USPS of a change of address, the USPS could pass the new information to the local election officials from both the old and the new jurisdiction. The new jurisdiction could then prompt the voter to reregister, and the old one could remove the voter from the rolls (ideally after contacting the voter for verification). At the very least, the "change of address" kit distributed by the USPS could include a form that the user could fill in with the proper addresses to apply to reregister in the new jurisdiction. Currently, the kit contains suggestions relating to utilities and shopping, so there is a precedent for including information related to subjects other than the USPS.

Creation of a national voter registration database

By building a single, centralized database modeled on the Social Security database, concerns about duplicate registration in multiple states would be eliminated. However, such a system would be extremely large, and many states have expressed an unwillingness to give up a state-specific approach to registration.

Same-day registration

Eliminate voter registration

Currently North Dakota is the only state in the US does not require any form of voter registration.[3]

Voter registration reform controversies

Articles and resources

See also


  1. United States Census Bureau,How we Protect Your Information, gathered November 19, 2008.
  2. Art Hughes,Census samples suggest minority undercount Minnesota Public Radio, December 6,2002
  3. Qualifications for Voting in North Dakota, gathered December 1, 2008.

External resources

External articles