The stories about the degradation of our right to vote hit the wire on an almost hourly basis. Faulty touchscreens that fail to register voter preferences. Voter registrations in several states that has been declining, rather than rising. Voters being challenged unfairly at the polls. Ballots printed inaccurately, or with confusing ballot designs. Poll-closing times of 6 pm in Kentucky and Indiana, despite the burden that puts on working people with children.
Without a constitutionally enumerated right to vote, the status of our current ability to vote is often left in flux. This allows states to each have their own policies and laws, many of which are directly contradictory. Until a national right to vote exists, the hodge-podge of voter regulations will continue to disenfranchise citizens in almost every state.
Today in my constitutional right to vote blog, I’d like to focus on voter registration; a practice grounded in the fact that we want to have secure, efficient elections. Yet, voter registration was not a practice used during the first century of American elections. Today, voter registration laws effectively hurt voters as often as they protect voters.
With some 25% to 30% of our eligible voters not registered to do so, FairVote backs the growing movement for voter registration modernization, and indeed led the way in calling for universal voter registration earlier in the decade – a principle that, if following international norms, would serve to create a full and accurate voter roll that provides both greater voter access, as well as more secure and efficient elections. We should continue to advance voter registration modernization, including such initial steps as expanding use of our voter pre-registration proposal for young people. Such acts are already underway in several states.
As part of such a proposal to modernize our current election procedures, we should also expand the practice of same-day voter registration (also called Election Day Registration), which is now the law in several states, and the District of Columbia (Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, NH, Wisconsin, Wyoming, NC). Same day registration (SDR) allows voters to register to vote the day they cast a ballot. It has been known to increase voter turnout by as much as 12%.
Most states require a new voter to register several weeks before they vote, so that they can be entered into a database and told of their polling location. However, because of the advent of computerized statewide voter databases, this is no longer a time consuming requirement. Registrars can now instantly log onto a database and register a voter, checking it against a state-wide index to prevent fraud and double-voting.
So many people in the United States move every year. Given current inefficient practices and confusing local laws, eligible voters are often left unable to vote in elections. Some areas, like North Carolina in 2008, have recently overhauled their laws to help eligible voters access elections. With states now using statewide voter registration databases, same-day registration can be done all the more efficiently.
As stated by Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), “We go out of our way to make sure every single Minnesotan exercises his or her duty and is allowed to vote. For the past 34 years, Election Day Registration has guaranteed them that right—fairly and freely. It’s a right that all Americans should share.”
Adds Congressman. Dean Heller (R-NV), in a 2003 during discussion of a statewide EDR bill: “Nevada has consistently been near the bottom in terms of the number of registered voters and those who actually cast their ballots. There are several factors that contribute to this poor showing, but certainly the fact that in Nevada people must register to vote at least 30 days before an election serves as a stumbling block for increasing participation.”
Some complain that SDR is costly, confusing, and doesn’t encourage voting. But Demos, the nation’s leading resource on SDR, asserts this is an easier system than provisional ballots, which are now a federal right. 64% of all people polled in 2001 claimed same day registration would make them more likely to vote, and the five states with the highest voter turnout
are all SDR states. Given the fact that young people are particularly likely to be changing addresses, they can be helped by SDR. More than 35% of those who use SDR are under the age of 24. Many people cite a recent change of address as the reason why they were not registered prior to the day they voted.
Additionally, voters can be mistakenly removed from the polls, due to inactivity or human error, without them knowing it. They may ask for provisional ballots, but having SDR in place better ensures these voters the opportunity to vote.
SDR has no ideological bias – it simply helps ensure those who have recently moved can vote.
Some critics will say that SDR allows for fraud. However, with the advent of state wide voter indexes, this is untrue. In fact, SDR can help reduce fraud claims. SDR was over 18% of votes in the Minnesota 2008 election. While many ballots like absentee ballots and provisional ballots became the source of multiple recounts throughout the state, SDR ballots were not a source of confusion and did not undergo the drama that absentee/provisional ballots were subjected to.
Even for states wary of going to SDR for Election Day voting in all its poling places, North Carolina’s model of allowing it for early voting seems to be a sensible compromise. Early voting allows a voter to cast their vote before Election Day at a polling place (not by mail, as with absentee voting). Early voting allows those who work traditional 9-5 hours, or who have limited free time due to childcare and other extenuating circumstances, to vote when they have a spare moment. It encourages voting in groups that traditionally find it difficult to make it to the polls. In both Kentucky and Indiana, for example, polls close at 6pm, and many other states close their polls at 7 pm. Such poll-closing times on a work day leave many working people with children in a position where it’s difficult to make it to the polls.
But as recently explained in a New York Times commentary by Burden and Mayer, early voting without same day registration may actually reduce turnout – regular voters are most likely to use it, and when many people vote early, voter mobilization efforts near and on Election Day are less likely to inspire infrequent voters to participate. “North Carolina and
Vermont, two otherwise very different states that combined early voting with same-day registration, had turnout levels in 2008 that were much higher than the overall national figure of 58 percent of the voting-age population. Turnouts in Vermont and North Carolina were, respectively, 63 percent and 64 percent.” . More than a quarter million voters who took part in North Carolina’s elections voted early and registered that same day.
The bottom line is that we should uphold the right to vote for everyone. That means making sure no one votes who should not be eligible to vote, but also means that no one who is eligible to vote should be denied their voting rights for bureaucratic reasons. HJR 28 would in fact establish the right to SDR in the Constitution as part of affirming a citizenship right to vote in the United States. But we don’t need to wait: let’s take advantage of our new voter registration databases to establish a practice that has been proven to work.