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Modernizing the vote

Editorial Board // Published June 22, 2009 in The Baltimore Sun

By any reasonable standard, the U.S. does a terrible job of registering eligible citizens to vote. According to the most recent estimates, only about 68 percent of eligible voters age 18 and over are likely to be registered in 2010.

A study of voter registration systems in other democracies around the world released last week by New York University's Brennan Center For Justice underscores this country's failure. France registers 91 percent of its eligible citizens. Germany and Britain do even better.

Even within North America, the U.S. is atrociously far behind. Mexico registers 95 percent of eligible residents and Canada scores 93 percent.

For a nation that claims to be promoting democracy around the globe, the U.S. is setting a poor example in the most fundamental requirements of self-government. How can we claim to be a nation where a majority rules when so many citizens don't participate?

The core problem is that unlike most democracies, the U.S. places the entire burden of registering on individual citizens. People must generally seek out their right to vote, and inevitably there are obstacles to overcome from unprocessed registration forms, inaccurate purges of voter roles and other too-common errors.

The federal government doesn't take such a haphazard approach with income taxes or Social Security; why must voter registration be treated so indifferently?

A far better model would be for the U.S. to take the more activist approach favored by our neighbors to the north. Canada faces many of the same challenges that this country does - voting is not mandatory, registration is decentralized, and it's a mobile society with an estimated one-seventh of the population moving each year.

But the difference is that the Canadians keep a database of voters that is continuously updated by a slew of government agencies, from motor vehicle departments to post offices to tax authorities. The U.S. also gives it citizens an opportunity to register to vote when they enroll in college or get a driver's license, but it's a modest outreach by comparison.

The U.S. needs to make modernizing voter registration a top priority. One answer may be for more states to offer registration on election day. In Minnesota, where that's been the practice for 30 years, voter turnout is relatively high with little evidence of double-voting or other forms of fraud, according to a recent report sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Surely there's a way to capitalize on 21st century technology and computerized data-sharing to keep voter rolls accurate and complete - if Congress can put aside the customary partisan bickering and disinformation that so often blocks efforts at voting reform.