The Right Way to Register Voters

// Published July 24, 2009 in The New York Times
In the United States, the burden of registering falls squarely on voters. In countries where the government does more of the work, according to a new study, registration rates are much higher.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law looked at voter registration in 16 countries and four Canadian provinces. The registration rates ranged from 100 percent in Argentina and 97 percent in Belize to 68 percent in the United States. That 68 percent reflects poorly on American democracy. To live up to the ideal of the founders of a nation governed with the consent of the governed, the United States should aspire to get as close to full registration of eligible voters as possible.

Many of the countries and provinces in the study with the highest registration rates sign people up by using data borrowed from other government agencies. In France, when young people register for the military, their information is forwarded to election officials who then register them to vote. Quebec puts voters on the rolls when they turn 18, relying partly on information from the provincial health insurance agency.

In some jurisdictions, the government is even more active. Britain conducts mass mailings of voter registration materials, and Saskatchewan sends election officials door to door to register eligible voters.

In the American system, state and local officials, who have the primary responsibility in this area, have overwhelmingly failed to put in place the sort of system needed to bring eligible voters into the electorate. In many states, legislators and election officials have actually adopted policies designed to interfere with registration drives or erected other barriers.

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, widely known as the motor voter law, which required that registration materials be made available at motor vehicle and public welfare offices. But there have been widespread reports that even this modest law is not adequately enforced.

Bolder action is needed to impose a higher standard on the states. Senator Charles Schumer, the Democrat of New York who is chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, is at work on a national voter registration modernization bill. To be effective, it should follow the lead of nations that are far more serious than the United States about getting eligible voters on the rolls — and have the registration rates to prove it.