Making the District More of a Democracy

Adam Fogel // Published April 19, 2009 in The Washington Post

FairVote's Adam Fogel shows how Washington, DC can move toward the goal of universal voter registration before it receives a vote in Congress.

As the National Rifle Association and its congressional allies hold the D.C. Voting Rights Act hostage, there is an important opportunity to reflect on what democracy means for the District of Columbia. Beyond debating issues of home rule or statehood, the D.C. Council should consider reforms that would increase voter turnout, improve civic education and expand opportunities for political participation.

This year, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) convened a hearing to look at ways to modernize D.C. elections and expand access to the polls. The District falls below the national voter turnout average, and a quarter to a third of D.C. residents are not even registered to vote. The reforms that the council is considering -- Election Day registration, no-excuse absentee voting and early voting -- are good first steps, but the council should think much bigger if the goal is to make the District a beacon of democracy.

For example, consider the goal of universal voter registration. Our voter registration system is a relic of the past. Since the turn of the 19th century, politicians have advocated for voter registration laws to limit the number of eligible voters; the goal was to manipulate the composition of the electorate. Living with this system, which was designed to keep people from participating, has given Americans a sort of complex. Conventional wisdom says that we don't vote because of apathy or because we aren't paying attention, but the reality is that the system itself erects barriers to participation that many people cannot maneuver around -- leading to dismal American voter registration and participation compared with other democracies.

To increase participation and engage all citizens, we must change the way we think about voting in this country and in the District. Most other democracies in the world place the burden of preparing for elections on the government -- not the individual voter. Instead of expecting people not to show up on Election Day, as we do in the United States, most democracies anticipate participation by developing full and accurate voter rolls. In short, we need a paradigm shift from the current self-initiated, opt-in system to one where citizens start out on the voter rolls and opt out if they choose.

To begin modernizing the District's voter registration system, the D.C. Council should set a uniform voter registration age of 16, as Florida and Hawaii have done. This common-sense policy would allow schools to conduct systematic voter registration drives, increase registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles through "motor voter" programs and give these newly registered voters time to learn about candidates and issues. Currently, young people often leave high school without knowing the mechanics of participation because they were too young to register.

Another proposal is for the D.C. Board of Elections to prepare the voter rolls by automatically registering all citizens to vote through existing databases. Using tax forms, public assistance agency records and the driver's license database would increase the accuracy of the voter rolls and decrease the need for outside groups to register voters before each election. This policy would not only increase the District's registration rate, but it would also alleviate some of the burden on local election officials close to Election Day.

As we wait (and wait) for Congress to act and finally give the District its well-deserved right to vote in Congress, the city can take action now to make sure it is prepared to take advantage of that vote. The D.C. Council can enact polices that would increase voter registration and participation, showing the rest of the country that Washington doesn't just talk about the vote -- but actually does it.

The writer is Right to Vote Director at FairVote.