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4 false claims about universal voter registration

by Eve Robert // Published November 24, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has said she plans to introduce a bill to move toward automatic voter registration. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, officials in several states, including Minnesota, Oregon and New York, have expressed interest in implementing such a system at a state level. In "universal" voter registration systems (often called "automatic" or "state-initiated" systems), the government takes the lead in ensuring that all eligible citizens are registered to vote. The United States is one of the few democracies where the government does not take any responsibility in registering its voters: electors must take the initiative and register themselves to vote (and also update their registration details when they move). Many myths exist about the current U.S. system of self-initiated voter registration: MYTH: "Under a self-initiated system, the registers created being designed specifically for electoral purposes, they need not include as much information as other types of civil registers and can therefore be more protective of personal data". The truth is that many state-initiated systems have proven to be highly protective of personal data. Data-sharing agreement with government agencies (tax agencies, social security…) do not necessarily imply database linkage between the two bodies, and in most of the countries where registration is automatic (i.e. Sweden, Italy, Australia, Canada), the voter roll contains only basic information about each person – name, address, sex and date of birth. In addition, in some countries (New Zealand, Australia), "silent" or "anonymous" voter registration systems allow certain categories of voters to not have their personal information appear on the electoral roll for fear that it may compromise their personal safety. MYTH: "Under self-initiated systems, the electoral rolls are more likely to exclude ineligible persons, such as those who have died or those who have permanently emigrated from the country." In fact, data-sharing agreements between the electoral management body and local offices of vital services (i.e. Canada), or tax administration bodies (i.e. Sweden) have proved to be very efficient in excluding ineligible persons from the rolls. MYTH: "Self-initiated systems ensure a better protection of freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, since citizens can freely chose whether or not they want to be registered (some people may prefer not to, for political or religious reasons) ." Actually, several countries using automatic registration systems allow people to opt-out from the voter rolls. For instance, in Canada, information from federal data suppliers is transferred to Elections Canada only with the "active and informed" consent of the individuals concerned. On income tax returns, the Canada Revenue Agency includes a section that Canadian tax filers can check to have their name, address and date of birth forwarded to Elections Canada. A similar section exists on Citizenship and Immigration's citizenship application forms (for new Canadians) and on Canada Post's Change of Address form. MYTH: "With an automatic plan, it is not possible for the government authorities to ensure that only US citizens are added to the voters rolls". The current self-registration method actually runs on the honor system: each registrant signs an affidavit under penalty of perjury that he is a US citizen. Generally speaking, no government employee checks to ensure the veracity of each affidavit. The affidavit system can be maintained under an automatic system by asking people to check a box on their tax files, driver's license application or change of address files (thanks to which their information is forwarded to the Electoral management body) to swear that they are US citizen. However, very often this is not necessary since recently, many states have begun requiring that applicants for a driver's license must show a social security card – and under new rules for gaining a Social security card, applicants must now show proof of US citizenship or immigration status. Citizenship information is thus provided to departments of motor vehicles and Social Security offices and can easily be included in their databases. This is the case in the two States were automatic registration bills have been introduced: New York and California. In California, it's even simpler: law now requires every applicant for a driver's license to show proof of citizenship status, verification of birth date and social security number – that is to say, to document all the information needed to register an individual to vote! Also, the California Tax Board requires Social Security numbers and proof of citizenship or immigration status- their database could therefore also be used to add new taxpayers to the voters rolls.