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Looking Abroad For Answers On Voter Registration

Eliza Newlin Carney // Published July 20, 2009 in National Journal

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill mull the best way to overhaul the voter registration system, advocacy groups that endorse fixes are pointing overseas for answers.

Unlike the United States, which puts the onus for registering entirely on the voter, many Western democracies put government officials in charge of adding voters to the rolls, according to a recent study by New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice. These include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Peru and Sweden.

The Brennan Center report, the first of its kind to examine voting internationally, is one of several recent studies advocating automatic, government-driven voter registration. Voting rights advocates envision a system that establishes federal standards but leaves state officials in charge of compiling voter lists, in part by tapping official databases such as driver's license, public assistance and naturalization records.

They're making the case to lawmakers drafting legislation on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., that a voter registration overhaul should include these elements. One or more bills could be introduced as early as this fall.

"I think it's the election reform that's likely to move," said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. PIRG is also working to convince state and local election officials that automatic, permanent voter registration would make their lives easier and save them a bundle of money.

A recent PIRG report makes the case that the nation's current, paper-based registration system is not only inefficient and error-riddled, but burdens election administrators with excessive costs. The survey of 100 counties, conducted by PIRG's Education Fund, found that election officials spent more than $33 million in the 2008 election on simply populating and correcting the voter rolls.

Voting rights advocates argue that registration snafus were the No. 1 problem plaguing last year's election. Certainly registration controversies dominated the headlines, with progressive activists complaining that eligible voters were blocked from registering and voting, and conservatives arguing that ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was fraudulently registering ineligible voters.

Putting registration in the hands of government officials would solve both problems, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center's voting rights and elections project. The group's recent analysis of voter registration systems around the world points to data sharing -- capturing voter information from government records used for other purposes -- as the most promising model internationally.

"Data sharing is something that is very widely used across the world," said Weiser. Of the 16 countries that the Brennan Center studied, only four -- the Bahamas, Belize, Burundi and Mexico -- placed the onus for registering entirely on the voter, as the United States does. In the remaining dozen, government officials shoulder at least part of the responsibility for getting voters on the rolls.

Some countries take near-full responsibility for registering voters. In Austria, Germany and Belgium, for example, election officials automatically generate voter lists from larger population databases or other government agencies. Others, such as France and Great Britain, do part of the job by facilitating registration through canvassing, or by tapping military conscription records.

Voting rights advocates are not pushing for a single, national voter registration database in the United States. Such a system could prove costly and unwieldy, and it might generate errors that knock out voters, noted Weiser. Instead, they envision federal registration standards that would govern universal registration within each state.

Also crucial would be some sort of "fail-safe" mechanism for eligible voters who, for whatever reason, fail to get on the rolls, and a means of tracking voters who move. In most states, a voter who moves from one address to another must re-register in order to cast a ballot. Some states already are tracking voters who move through postal or motor vehicle records, and eight now offer Election Day registration, according to another Brennan Center report released this year.

There are obstacles to completely revamping the American voter registration system, of course. One is simple public apathy. Though voter protection groups reported a high level of registration-related complaints this year, Americans remain largely indifferent to voting system problems, noted a recent analysis from the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project.

Only 43 percent of respondents participating in the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study said that they supported automatic registration for 18-year-olds, for example. (The CCES is a large-sample national survey done by researchers at 30 universities.) The breakdown was the same when respondents were asked about Election Day registration, according to Molly Reynolds, a senior research coordinator for the AEI-Brookings project.

Such findings suggest that "any efforts to enact the types of reform proposals being touted by policy elites will collide with a neutral-at-best, resistant-at-worst public," wrote Reynolds in the Election Reform Project analysis.

Still, it's instructive to glimpse how widespread such techniques as automatic voter registration and data sharing are in other democracies. In its comprehensive study of international voting systems, the Brennan Center's biggest surprise was how similar voter registration systems are outside the U.S., said Weiser. It's one area where the United States is beginning to look like an outlier.