Register Everybody

// Published June 29, 2009 in Roll Call

Among the developed countries of the world — and even some less-developed ones — the United States has the lowest voter registration rate with just 68 percent of registered voters actually signed up to do so.

What’s more, as voting experts assert, registration is the single largest cause of problems on Election Day.

So, it’s time for Congress to fix this, amending the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 in the wake of election snafus in Florida to encourage states to automatically register citizens and provide local election officials with computer access to statewide voter databases.

Appropriately, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee has held a hearing on the subject, and Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to write legislation. We hope he will find Republicans willing to help him write a bipartisan bill.

A report on international registration patterns was just issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. According to it, Argentina registers 100 percent of its voting-age population, followed by Belize, Great Britain and Canada’s Saskatchewan province at 97 percent, and Mexico, Sweden and Peru at 95 percent.

Germany, Australia, Austria and even Indonesia and Burundi are in the 90s, trailed by South Africa at 77 percent, the Bahamas at 75 percent and the United States at the bottom.

The Brennan report asserts that the difference is automaticity. In high-registration countries, “election officials routinely add new voters to the rolls based on information that other government agencies provide,” so “there is no need for these voters to interact with election officials directly and no corresponding mountain of paperwork.”

In the United States, according to Republican elections expert Trevor Potter, HAVA caused states to establish statewide voter databases, but new registrations and residence change notices are left up to voters themselves.

What follows are frantic election-year registration drives by independent groups that often deluge election officials with illegible, duplicate — and sometimes, fraudulent — registration forms. Mix-ups on Election Day are inevitable and lead to constant complaints of voter “disenfranchisement.”

Instead of relying on outside groups — ACORN is the most controversial, but hardly the only organization doing this work — states should use their own motor-vehicle, welfare-department and tax databases to construct voter lists. They also should access federal databases, presumably excluding the Internal Revenue Service.

Then, letters should go out to those on the lists advising them that they are registered to vote in a specific precinct and advising them they can opt out, change addresses or correct errors.

This wouldn’t entirely eliminate partisan differences over what identification requirements should be imposed when voters who aren’t registered show up at the polls, but this presumably is a question for the states to decide. It should not prevent Republicans and Democrats in Congress from coming together on the principle that everyone eligible should be registered to vote.