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Why Universal Registration?

Complete and accurate voter rolls are essential to the integrity of the electoral process and the legitimacy of results. Yet, as evidenced by recent elections, voter rolls are littered with duplicate registrants and errors. Nearly a third of eligible American voters are not registered to vote and voter registration drives result in a surge of registrations close to an election that are difficult to process and that create unanticipated demands on polling places. As a result, millions of eligible voters are effectively shut out of the political process.

While no voter registration process is perfect, ours is riddled with flaws. The United States is one of only a few democracies in the world where the government does not take responsibility for registering voters.  Instead, our government leaves the construction of voter rolls up to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, political parties, election officials and active citizens.  Sadly, this hands off approach invites voter registration fraud. It is not surprising that voter rolls are neither complete nor accurate.

In contrast, the international norm is an orderly process of automatic registration of every citizen who reaches voting age and of every person who becomes a citizen. Citizens are automatically placed on voter rolls upon reaching voting age and/or government officials actively work to register all citizens.  For example, in Iraq's first democratic elections, election officials automatically transferred the names of Iraqis from ration lists to voter rolls.

Voter registration should be the mutual responsibility of citizens and their government.  The government should not only facilitate registration; it should actively register adults who are eligible to vote as part of its responsibility to have accurate rolls. 100% voter registration should be the goal.  Moreover, universal voter registration has the potential to bring together conservatives who are concerned about fraudulent voter registrations and liberals who are concerned about anemic political participation.

The most comprehensive way to move toward universal voter registration is to establish federal standards that states must follow to ensure all eligible voters are on their states' voter roll. These standards must also be twinned with a failsafe to ensure citizens that are not on the rolls can register and vote on Election Day. The federal standards should also set a national uniform voter registration age of 16-years-old, where youth are systematically regisered to vote and automatically added to the voter rolls upon reaching voting age.

Even before we have a national standard, states can take immediate action. States like Florida and Hawaii have already set a uniform voter registration age of 16. Several states are also working toward automatic voter registration policies, where citizens filing state tax returns are systematically registered to vote. States can also tie Post Office Change of Address forms to the voter registration database and utilize existing state databases to move toward a system of universal voter registration.

However best achieved, we believe that such changes would register far more citizens in an orderly way, generate more understanding of the value of 100% registration and provide a means to systematically introduce young people to the importance of political participation. We see a natural complement to this proposal being a "voting curriculum" for high school students.

Read FairVote's State Voter Registration Agenda

Policy Recommendations:

  • Federal action to require that states use existing government databases to systematically register citizens
  • Systematically register 16-year-olds in high school and at the DMV, twinned with a comprehensive "voting curriculum"
  • State action that includes automatic voter registration using state tax forms, Post Office change of address and other statewide databases