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How to Make Our Election System Better: Modernizing Voter Registration

Posted: May 22, 2012

The cause of democracy received a crucial victory Friday when a D.C. Circuit court upheld a key component of the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of U.S. civil rights law to combat racial discrimination in voting.

America has made great progress toward guaranteeing the fundamental right to vote for all adult citizens, and the Voting Rights Act has played a critical role in that progress. As overwhelming bipartisan majorities of Congress found in 2006, the Voting Rights Act is still an important bulwark against efforts to discriminate in the voting process, to turn back the clock to an era when unfair laws and practices prevented too many of us from participating in our democracy.

Unfortunately, the Voting Rights Act is especially needed now. This past year has seen the biggest rollback of voting rights since the Jim Crow era. Dozens of new laws in 18 states will make it harder for eligible Americans to vote — and minorities will be especially hard hit. Ten states passed new laws requiring voters to show IDs that 1 in 10 Americans do not have. African Americans will face greater hurdles, since a full quarter of them do not have IDs that will be accepted for voting. Other states passed laws eliminating Sunday early voting, which was used especially by African-American and Latino churches to organize successful “souls to the polls” drives in 2008. New laws hobbling community-based voter registration drives also harm minorities, who are more than twice as likely as whites to register through drives. All told, these new laws will create significant obstacles for millions of voters, and especially minorities who have been historically targeted by discriminatory voting laws.

Instead of putting in place suppressive measures that lock out many minority voters and do little or nothing to improve the integrity of our elections, lawmakers should focus on improving our voting system so that it works well for all Americans.

Last Thursday, Representative John Lewis, who marched for the Voting Rights Act, joined by 123 members of Congress, introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, a federal bill designed to do just that. A key element of that bill is a common-sense reform to modernize voter registration, a proposal first introduced by the Brennan Center in 2008.

Election professionals of all political stripes agree that America’s outdated, paper-based voter registration system is the single biggest barrier to voting and cause of election administration problems. It is inefficient, costly, and prone to inaccuracy. It leaves off millions of eligible voters and contains errors that reduce confidence in our elections and prevent many from having their votes counted.

Although any voter risks problems under the current system, minority and low-income voters too often bear the brunt. Take, for example, efforts to purge the voter rolls of ineligible voters. When done poorly, purges can knock out large numbers of eligible voters, often without any notice or recourse. In 2000, Florida officials tried to remove names of people ineligible because of criminal convictions, but the process was so imprecise that it erroneously removed close to 12,000 eligible voters, disproportionately minorities. A thwarted purge attempt in 2004 would have removed 48,000 voters, 24,000 of whom were African-American, from the rolls based on faulty assumptions. And just last week, Florida claimed to have “found” 182,000 names on the rolls who may not be citizens. Again, a flawed process means that many eligible citizens could be incorrectly purged. Time and again, these measures disproportionately harm minorities.

Fortunately, there is a better way to conduct voter registration and avoid these problems. It is time to harness new technology to modernize the system — adding more than 50 million eligible Americans to the rolls, permanently, and dramatically reducing errors.

Voter registration modernization requires the government to take responsibility to ensure that every eligible voter who wants to be registered is on the rolls, using existing computerized lists. As a result of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, all states put in place computerized voter rolls. But most citizens still must fill out paperwork to get onto those lists, and they fall off the rolls when there are errors, or when they move or change their address. Voter registration modernization uses digital technology to pass names of eligible voters from state agencies on to election officials. Citizens are able to register or update their registration online or at the polls.

It costs less (because computerized records are far easier to keep than today’s chaotic piles of paper). And it also curbs errors and any potential for fraud.

Voter registration modernization receives widespread bipartisan support in the states. In recent years, at least 21 states have taken a key step forward by automating voter registration at DMVs. Experiences in the states demonstrate that this increases accuracy and registration rates, minimizes the potential for fraud, and saves money.

Everyone can agree that our voter rolls should be as complete and accurate as possible so that every eligible American has the opportunity to vote with confidence. That’s what modernizing voter registration can accomplish. It is something everyone can get behind. Members of all political parties, in Congress and in the states, should support reforms that actually help our voting system work rather than misguided efforts to roll back the clock on voting rights.

Wendy Weiser is the Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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