In a few months, Americans will cast ballots in the earliest and most crowded presidential primary season in our history. Many will arrive at the polls only to find they are not on the list of registered voters. In this, and in every election, the accuracy of voter registration lists is essential.
In states throughout the country, the integrity of voter registration lists is in question. In 2004, a study by the Chicago Tribune found that more than 181,000 of the voters on the rolls in six swing states were deceased. Additional controversies erupted during the election cycle as partisan and nonpartisan registration drives were charged with submitting fictitious registrations and destroying applications, and election officials were accused of erecting needless barriers to voter registration or using faulty means to purge their lists.
Registration rolls are created in a very piecemeal way, relying on local registrars, state motor vehicle agencies and a wide array of nonpartisan and partisan get-out-the-vote campaigns. Efforts to ensure registration rolls are up-to-date are impeded by limitations in state data management technologies and federal legal constraints on when names can be removed from lists. And while the private sector has developed efficient ways to keep consumer records current, the 40 million Americans that move each year must manually re-register to vote when they change addresses - a process that is time-consuming for both voters and election officials.
If past trends hold true, an estimated 19 million prospective voters will be left off the rolls in the next election, and the lists will contain millions of ineligible names. This is a serious management problem for local election officials and an opportunity for those seeking to manipulate elections.
Democracies around the world are doing a far better job than we are at ensuring the integrity of their voter rolls. Perhaps the most important step they have taken is in the use of automatic registration practices to compile and maintain their lists. In Canada, a linked system of government agency databases registers eligible voters as soon as they reach voting age. In Denmark, inclusion on the register is automatic, requiring only that voters report any changes in residency.
Here at home, states are experimenting with similar innovations:
l Arizona was the first state to allow online registration, and in 2006 more than half of all new registrants did so via the Internet.
l Florida just updated its laws to allow new drivers to pre-register when they get their first license. When these new drivers turn 18 they will automatically be added to the voter rolls.
l Michigan directly linked its registration and motor vehicle databases. More than 600,000 out-of-date voter registration records were removed and that list is now automatically updated whenever a change of address is filed with the DMV.
l Washington state is testing personalized invitations to 18-year-olds to vote and will soon allow online voter registration.
Each of these innovations represents a promising step forward, and in the coming election cycle they deserve serious evaluation. But even if they succeed, they are only Band-Aids. It is time to take an entirely new look at the way we compile and maintain our voter registration rolls.
Accomplishments in the states, the private sector and other democracies suggest we could be much more ambitious. It is time to take a hard look at whether universal portable registration is possible in the United States - a system where states would have a comprehensive list of all their voters, registration would seamlessly follow those who move, ineligible names could not be added to the list and information would be managed reliably. With solid evidence collected during the 2008 election cycle, it will be time to wrestle with that question and other bold ideas that would transform rather than repair our elections.
Registration is the pathway to voting for every American. Our goal should be no less ambitious than a state-of-the-art system worthy of American democracy and the voters who make it work.