A wave of new state laws and court challenges has created two camps — one (where we stand) saying new restrictive voting laws will make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to register and vote, and another claiming these tighter rules are needed to guard against fraud.
Although the dispute continues to polarize, both sides can support a bipartisan, common-sense reform that addresses everyone’s concerns: modernizing our ramshackle voter registration system.
Earlier this month, Democratic House leaders introduced a plan to bring voter registration into the 21st century. Under this plan, states would use available technology to automatically register eligible citizens when they interact with government offices (without relying on paper forms), keep voters registered when they move, and allow voters and election officials to more easily correct and update registration information.
Modernized voter registration, which many states already use in some form, could bring more than 50 million Americans into the system, make registration lists more accurate and reduce the potential for fraud — all while saving states millions of dollars. Congress should move now to enact this key reform.
The voter rolls are a mess. A recent study by the Pew Center on the States estimated that 1 in 4 eligible Americans — 51 million people — are not on the rolls and that 1 in 8 — 24 million — voter registration records are no longer valid or contain serious inaccuracies, raising the prospect of disenfranchisement or fraud.
The primary reason? An antiquated system based on paper forms. We currently rely on individual citizens to send in paper applications to register, rather than give the task to state officials who can use reliable information and technology to handle registration better.
Paper forms create a litany of problems: illegible handwriting, applications lost in the mail, duplicative data entry, typos and all the other complications that have led the rest of society to abandon paper-based systems for computers. When mistakes inevitably occur, there are no good methods or fail-safe procedures to make sure our rolls are accurate and complete.
It is no wonder that the current system costs way too much, leaves millions unregistered and creates error-laden voter lists.
Some states have actually made the problem worse by cutting back on voter registration, such as by hobbling community-based voter registration drives that have helped millions register to vote.
Recognizing that there is a better way, a number of states have begun modernizing. Automated registration has become increasingly popular.
At least 21 states have already automated the voter registration process, at least partially, at their Departments of Motor Vehicles, and several are expanding this program to other government agencies. Eight states and the District of Columbia allow voters to remain registered to vote when they move, and 10 more accomplish this result by having fail-safe procedures for correcting the rolls up through Election Day. Ten states have online registration. These states have experienced higher voter registration rates and fewer errors and have saved money. Fewer errors also mean fewer opportunities for fraud or abuse.
Federal support is critical to states taking the next step. National standards for data collection and sharing will help states employ best practices. Modest federal funding will help cover startup costs.
To be sure, any modernization plan will require protections to make sure that only individuals who are eligible and want to be registered are registered and that personal information is safeguarded. The Democratic measure has extensive and effective safeguards to accomplish those goals.
Despite the intensity of the current debate over voting rights, everyone agrees that we need an election system that works for everyone — where all eligible Americans, and only eligible Americans, can vote. And we need a system that is secure, accurate and not susceptible to manipulation. Although it will not end the voting wars, voter registration modernization presents a special opportunity for detente. Lawmakers from all political parties should rally in support of this common-sense reform.
Wendy Weiser is director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Jonathan Brater serves as counsel for the center’s Democracy Program.