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Setting the Record Straight on Universal Voter Registration Misinformation and Misunderstanding Begin to Frame Debate

by Adam Fogel // Published February 3, 2010
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Last month, video of the Wall Street Journal's John Fund discussing universal voter registration made the rounds, stirring up a considerable amount of buzz on the right about the impending federal government takeover of elections. In his remarks, which you can watch in its entirety below, he describes a diabolical plot by liberal Democrats in congress to steal control of elections and register illegal immigrants. He explains the plan as follows:

In January, Chuck Schumer and Barney Frank will propose universal voter registration. What is universal voter registration? It means all of the state laws on elections will be overriden by a federal mandate. The feds will tell the states: 'take everyone on every list of welfare that you have, take everyone on every list of unemployed you have, take everyone on every list of property owners, take everyone on every list of driver's license holders and register them to vote regardless of whether they want to be...'

It should be noted that when Rep. Frank heard these comments, he sent a letter to Mr. Fund explaining that he had no idea what Mr. Fund was talking about.  Mr. Fund has since retracted the claim that Rep. Frank is working on a voter registration bill, but now claims the bill is being pushed by House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers. Mr. Fund has a history of misinforming the public about voting issues, most recently when he peddled the unsubstantiated claim of rampant fraud in the New Jersey gubernatorial election.

Although Mr. Fund has shown some interest in other FairVote reforms like defanging gerrymandering to protect incumbents, his inaccurate and misleading statements about universal voter registration should be addressed by voting rights and reform advocates. First, he claims that a bill to modernize voter registration would be a takeover of elections by the federal government, essentially, overriding all existing state election law. While most other democracies around the world have centralized, impartial national election commissions, the U.S. does not. We rely on state election law to govern elections, with a constitutional mandate giving Congress broad authority to regulate federal elections. It is inaccurate to claim that anyone is advocating for a federal takeover of all elections. It is necessary, however, for Congress to provide guidelines and standards for states to follow that would improve election processes and increase accessibility to voter registration. Like the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2002, a voter registration modernization bill should provide resources for states to modernize their voter registration systems.

The way Mr. Fund describes how the federal government would assist states in improving their registration systems is inaccurate as well. He claims that states would be forced to automatically register "everyone" on "every" government list, including welfare recipients, property owners and people with a driver's license "regardless of whether they want to be." This is simply wrong. Under a modernized voter registration system no one will be forced to register to vote. There always will, and must, be an opportunity for eligible Americans to opt-out of the voter registration process and have their name removed from the voter roll. I would argue that we should create a system that anticipates participation, as opposed to being surprised when voter turnout is high. That means using government databases to automatically register all eligible voters automatically. The system would rightfully exclude ineligible people and would always provide a chance to opt-out. The Brennan Center for Justice has put together some excellent resources on how states could begin using existing databases to improve voter registration rates, without the risk of ineligible people ending up on the rolls.

The rallying cry on both ends of the political spectrum is that the other side is "stealing elections." Some conservatives, including Mr. Fund, claim that voter fraud is rampant, ACORN stole the 2008 election and more hurdles to participation are necessary to ensure fair elections. Some progressives are averse to most policies that are perceived to enhance election security for fear it will keep eligible voters away from the polls. While these two positions appear contradictory, I believe they can be complimentary. If the government took on a more prominent role in the voter registration process, it would decrease (but not eliminate) the need for third-party groups to conduct voter registration on the street. Voter rolls would be more accurate (not less) because they would be created using more reliable sources of data. The last-minute rush of voter registration applications would be a thing of the past, leaving local election officials more time to prepare for the election--increasing both accessibility and security simultaneously.

A bipartisan group of election experts who understand the need for bringing our voter registration system into the 21st century started a group called the Committee to Modernize Voter Registration. They offer some solutions for moving away from our paper-based system to an automatic system where voters remain on the rolls even if they move. Mr. Fund and other critics of modernizing our voter registration system should take a look at these bipartisan proposals, with an eye to finding compromises that will ultimately move our democracy forward.