Learning a Lesson from Egypt's Universal Voter Registration

by Elise Helgesen // Published December 7, 2011

Egypt’s first parliamentary election since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak began in certain parts of the country on November 28 and will continue into early next year. The vote is to ultimately fill the 498 seats of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of the legislature, through a combination of proportional representation and winner-take-all runoff elections.

Egypt is experiencing high turnout for a nation that is undergoing such turmoil. One reason is the sentiment that under Mubarak’s rule, voters were denied a political voice. Thus, voters now feel that they have the freedom to express themselves at the polls. Turnout rates were also bolstered by proportional representation, which encourages voters everywhere to vote and helps voters to elect candidates of choice.

There’s another reason for this high turnout, a reason with direct relevance to elections in the United States. Unlike the United States, where as many as three in ten eligible voters are not registered to vote, Egypt this year established a system of universal voter registration. Each citizen has a national identification card. Every individual age 16 years old or older is entered into a national database based on the address on his or her national identification card. That database is used as the national register for voters. Voters who are at least 18 years or older need only show their national identification card at the polls in order to vote.

The effect of this change, approved by Egypt’s Higher Election Committee prior to this year’s election, was not only to grant easier access to those voters in Egypt, but also to those Egyptian voters living abroad. In this current election, all eligible Egyptian expatriates are allowed to vote if there is a polling place established in their respective embassy or consulate. All those Egyptian expatriates who had a national identification card or a passport issued prior to September 27, 2011 are able to vote in this current election. With the ease of registering using only a national identification or passport, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian expatriates registered to vote online prior to the November election.

True, American citizens are not voting next year in the wake of a revolution; yet, there are lessons to be gleaned from the Egyptian experience that are instructive for U.S. elections. Our elections would benefit from a type of “democracy passport” that all Americans would automatically obtain upon becoming citizens. That “passport” need not be a physical piece of paper, but rather a unique identifier that every American citizen would receive for the specific purpose of participating in our democracy.

That kind of universal voter registration system would make it much more likely for us to uphold the goal that votes are only cast by those who are eligible to vote and that voting is not denied to people who are eligible to vote. Our current flawed system neither upholds election integrity nor voter access. Indicative of this flawed system is the fact that millions of Americans have active registrations in more than one jurisdiction, while tens of millions of eligible voters are not even registered to vote.

In contrast, the type of universal registration system created through the use of a “democracy passport” places the burden of registering voters on the government, not on voters themselves. It also modernizes the registration process by eliminating errors inherent in paper registration and creates a standardized system of registration in every state.

Though the details of administering this type of system still need to be developed, it is well within reach, given the realities of modern database technology and systems already in place to give out social security numbers. Seeing brand-new democracies like Egypt soar past the United States in terms of both the access and integrity of its voter registration system is a sobering reminder that the status quo is unacceptable.