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The Nation

A Call for Universal Voter Registration

This is the third in a series of posts concerned with just democracy. The first was an overview of the current state of our electoral system; the second a look at the prospects for a national popular vote for president.

Between 2 and 4 million Americans were unable to vote in the last election because of problems with their registration. And that's just people who tried to vote; in 2006, there were more than 65 million who were eligible to vote, but weren't even registered. That's a third of potential voters.

It doesn't have to be this way. Registration rates in other countries frequently run upwards of 90 percent (both Canada and France hit that mark, for example, while Venezuela stands at roughly 94 percent, and Russia about 97). Now reformers are seizing the moment to use existing law to expand registration, as well as considering new laws that could finally put the United States on an equal footing with many of the world's other democracies.

"That's a pretty staggering number," says Project Vote's executive director Michael Slater of the millions unable to cast a ballot in 2008. "We don't have the egregious problems with voter registration that we had in the past, but it's still a system that's far from perfect and it's still a system that's preventing people from voting in America."

As with too much else in America, the divide between the registered and the unregistered isn't neutral. The think tank Demos estimates that while 80 percent of citizens in households making $100,000 or more a year are registered to vote, only 60 percent of those making less than $25,000 a year can say the same.

The National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993 and often known as the 'Motor-Voter' Law because it made it possible to register to vote at your local DMV, was intended not only to make registration easier, but to begin closing the chasm between rich and poor voters. Section 7 of the act instructed public assistance agencies to offer everyone who walked through their doors an opportunity to register to vote. At first states complied and registrations jumped, but as of 2006 voter registration applications from public assistance agencies had plummeted from over 2.5 million to below 500,000.

Along with Project Vote and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos has set about challenging states to comply with the NVRA. In Missouri, the state's public assistance agencies had collected a measly 15,500 registrations in 2005 and 2006. In the six months after the coalition won a court ruling against the state in July 2008, those same agencies saw 90,000 new registrations. North Carolina saw a similar six-fold increase in registrations, while Virginia saw monthly registration applications leap eight-fold.

Iowa offers an even more compelling demonstration of the benefits of enforcing the NVRA. Even though Iowa had one of the highest voter registration rates in the country, after the Governor lit a fire under its public assistance agencies (or ordered its public assistance agencies to comply with law), the state still saw a stampede of new voters through those agencies' doors: a mind-boggling 3000 percent increase over 2003. As a report issued by Project Vote and Demos concludes, if this is what happens in a state with a strong registration rate, states with low registration rates can expect even more dramatic results.

On the other side of the scale, there's the state of Maryland. In the two years after the NVRA was passed, Maryland registered a mere 982 voters via its public assistance agencies. After a private party filed suit, the state got its act together. In 1999 and 2000, those same agencies registered 32,250 people. Then the agreement by which the suit had been settled came to an end in 2001, and public assistance registrations tumbled back down to around 1,000. "Most states which are covered by the NVRA are not in compliance," says Project Vote's executive director, Michael Slater. "The lesson that we draw from this is the old line that vigilance is the cost of liberty. Performance needs to be monitored and states that are failing need to be taken to task." Project Vote and Demos have already issued 'notice letters' to six of the forty-four states covered by the act that they're failing to comply, the first step toward taking legal action against them.

"The good news is the Justice Department is actually interested in enforcing this again," says Regina Eaton, the Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. "We've already seen a marked change in attitude." 13 million people who make less than $25,000 a year aren't registered to vote. Their chances of voting just got a whole lot better.

Placing the burden on voters to register before they can participate in elections was first done in Massachusetts in 1801, but it was only after the 15th Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote and waves of immigrants began arriving on the country's shores that such laws gained traction. Under the original Massachusetts law, town assessors drew up lists of voters, which were then publicly posted. If come election day your name wasn't on the list, you could simply present the necessary documents and register to vote. Since then, many states have shifted the burden onto the voter and closed the window in which it's possible to register. "Voter registration deadlines vary widely across the nation," says Demos' Eaton, observing that "these cut-off dates bear little relevance to a state's ability to run smooth elections."

As evidence, Eaton cites the experience of the nine states which now allow voters to register and cast their ballot on the same day. Usually referred to as election day registration (EDR) -- except in those states like North Carolina where election day is off limits, but voters can still register and cast their ballot early, where it's therefore known as same day registration -- this simple reform holds the potential to dramatically increase participation in our democracy. Every one of the five states with the highest percent turnout in 2008 used EDR, and on average, states with EDR saw turnout rates 7 percent higher than those without. Historically, states with EDR have enjoyed an even greater advantage, usually leading the rest of the country by between 10 and 12 percent.

In the wake of the 2004 election, the AGs of New Hampshire and Wisconsin both launched investigations of EDR voters for fraud. In both states, the practice was vindicated. Demos' early estimates suggest that in the last election over 1.1 million Americans used EDR and SDR to vote. Iowa, which enacted EDR in 2007, saw the highest turnout in state history in 2008, even as the number of provisional ballots cast (between 20 and 33 percent of which often go uncounted) plunged by almost 70 percent between 2004 and 2008. Young voters in particular benefit from EDR. As young Americans, especially college students, are highly mobile, EDR ensures that they can show up at the polls and vote on Election Day. Research suggests that EDR could raise turnout of young voters in presidential elections by 14 percent.

Yet these reforms still leave the burden of registration on the voter. The holy grail of registration reform remains universal registration. As the Election Protection coalition states in its report on the 2008 election, this would mean a registration system that was automatic, permanent (providing voters an opportunity to update their registration when they changed their name or address, for example), and allows for voters to correct any mistakes on election day. "A system where everybody's registered in some fashion automatically is much better than the patchwork system we have now," says Regina Eaton of Demos. "But that doesn't mean we don't need a way to make corrections. And there will be errors." In her analysis, EDR is part of the foundation of universal registration.

Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, calls universal registration "potentially the most significant improvement since the Voting Rights Act of 1965." He sees it as the surest path toward giving those 65 million more potential voters a voice in our democracy. "Roughly a third of eligible Americans still are not registered," Waldman says. "They tend to be less educated. They tend to be people who are locked out of the system. We don't expect people who are going to court to rustle up their own juries. Making sure that every citizen is registered should be a core responsibility of government."

Project Vote's Michael Slater is quick to sound a note of caution. He points to the troubled implementation of the Help America Vote Act's requirement that state's implement statewide voter registration databases. "Creating a brand new untested system has a real risk of making the system worse rather than better," he says. While he agrees with "the central tenet," that the state and not the individual should be responsible for registration, "we need to roll it out over a period of time so we know what we're getting. In the meantime we need to enforce what we have already, which would get us a long way toward universal registration."

As of this writing, Senator Chuck Schumer is reportedly considering introducing legislation to this effect in Congress soon. We may not have such a long way to go.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.


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