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Inconvenienced by Democracy: Dismantling the Argument Against Universal Voter Registration

by Adam Trope // Published August 6, 2009
Voter registration modernization is getting a great deal of attention lately, in part due to the latest report from the Brennan Center, which yielded an important editorial in the New York Times last month. Though this reform's virtues seem obvious to us at FairVote, I thought it was worth examining some of the arguments against improving voter registration systems in the United States.

Here's an example. In a blog post last year the well-known right wing blogger Michelle Malkin articulated her disdain for universal voter registration as she stated, "Automatic, mandatory voter registration and tracking strikes me not only as a bureaucratic nightmare, but also ideologically unsound."

Perhaps Malkin does not realize that the current voter registration process has been around since the early 1800s when it was invented by the Whig party. Or perhaps she does realize this, but does not see the fundamental differences in life today and the need for systematic reform from a system adopted when the horse and buggy was still the predominant form of transportation in this country. Or perhaps she does not realize that the technology has made the storage and transfer of masses of data exponentially easier and more cost efficient than in the past (does anybody remember card catalogs?).

On March 11th of this year, Jonah Goldman, a leader of the non-profit, non-partisan group Election Protection, testified before the Senate Rules Committee about voter registration reform. As a leading expert on the subject Goldman stated:

The current system of voter registration is a voter nightmare… In jurisdictions of all sizes and types whether run by Republicans, Democrats or appointed non-partisan professionals, the story remains the same: the inefficiencies of the registration system is a fundamental concern because it undermines election officials' ability to effectively serve their voters… Election officials in all size jurisdictions are forced to spend significant portions of their registration budgets – of ten over 50% of the modest funds allotted to them – hiring temporary employees and assigning full time staff to double check entries into the voter registration database to make sure they capture the correct information and eliminate duplicate registrations.
Goldman goes on to explain the plethora of problems our current voter registration system causes including thousands of voters to get wrongfully purged from the voter rolls, mass confusion at the polls, and the fact that it puts specific groups, including people serving in the military overseas, at a distinct disadvantage.

So, I guess according to Malkin, reform to modernize voter registration must be a big nightmare compared to all of that? After all, we would not want to implement something that is completely unproven and untested and that could lead cataclysmic results. Oh, what's that you say? Voter registration is already mandatory in 123 countries worldwide, including just about all of Europe and the vast majority of the first world? Interesting.

But Malkin does not just stop at saying that she feels we should leave our current mess of a voter registration process as-is (she may simply not know any better). Instead, she goes on to laud part of a series entitled "John Stossel's Politically Incorrect Guide to Politics" that claims that some people should simply not vote. The article argues that since many people in our country do not know basic political figures, issues, or historical facts that they should not vote at all.

Stossel eschews any common sense argument that promoting abstention from voting goes against basic American tenets such as the concept of equal representation or that voting as a civic duty. In response to the latter, Stossel uses a source in his article who says:

This is very much like saying, 'It's our civic duty to give surgery advice,'" Caplan said. "Now, we like to think that political issues are much less complicated than brain surgery, but many of them are pretty hard. If someone doesn't know what he's talking about, it really is better if they say, 'Look, I'm just gonna leave this in wiser hands.'
Unflappable logic. But actually, we have already tried doing something like this in our country. They were called literacy tests, and they were a codification of racism eventually deemed unconstitutional.

It is scary to think that after our country's long history of voter discrimination and battles by devoted voter rights activists to allow everybody to vote, that there are those still advocating for people to not vote. "Politically incorrect?" Indeed.