Put an end to election messes

// Published November 14, 2008 in The Boston Globe
BARACK OBAMA'S superior get-out-the-vote operation spared the country from another squeaker presidential election, with the claims of voter fraud and intimidation that have become so familiar in the previous two cycles. But that doesn't mean the problems in the nation's electoral system have disappeared. They're just not as visible at high tide.

After the 2000 election made the United States look like something out of a Marx Brothers movie, former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter co-chaired a National Election Commission. Their report concluded that the country has one of the most burdensome voter registration systems - and one of the lowest participation rates - in the developed world. Even with the Obama wave, voter turnout this year was only about 61 percent of registered voters.

One simple change would solve several problems that have bedeviled recent national elections: universal voter registration. Under this plan, promoted by the watchdog Brennan Center for Justice and others, the government would be responsible for automatically registering citizens when they turn 18. This would eliminate sometimes sketchy private groups, such as ACORN, from the business of registering voters. It would substantially reduce registration challenges - and lawsuits - that can disenfranchise voters. And, by capturing the 28 percent of Americans who are not now registered to vote, it would add almost 50 million voters to the rolls.

Because the conduct of elections is reserved to the states under the Constitution, each state should develop and execute its own plan for registration, with its own rules and identification requirements. But enabling legislation at the federal level would set deadlines and, importantly, allocate funds. Senator Hillary Clinton is working on legislation to overhaul voter registration.

State election officials and Republicans resist the idea, for different reasons: election officials fear another unfunded federal mandate; Republicans believe a massive infusion of new voters will tilt Democratic. But support is growing - the chairwoman of the federal Election Assistance Commission supports it, and Michael Waldman, director of the Brennan Center, presented a plan last week to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a project of the increasingly influential think tank whose director, John Podesta, is heading President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.

Change is hard to accept for a Congress that, after all, got elected under the current registration system. But any technical or political obstacles pale in comparison with another election marred by fears of ballot-stuffing, voter suppression, and undermined confidence in democracy.