Shut Out at the Polls

Editorial // Published March 16, 2009 in The Washington Post

NONE OF the fears that preceded last year's historic election were realized. There was no widespread fraudulent voting, electronic machines overall performed well and the vote was not too close to call. Nonetheless, the election was marred because millions of Americans were not able to cast ballots for candidates of their choice. At fault is the antiquated way voters are registered. Congress must work with the states to fix the problems that end up disenfranchising far too many citizens.

According to a study by the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, an estimated 4 million eligible voters couldn't cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election because they encountered problems with their registrations. Another 4 million to 5 million people reported administrative procedures as the reason for not registering. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recounted at a recent hearing how people were unable to vote through no fault of their own: a man whose name was mistakenly confused with that of an ineligible convicted felon; a woman whose registration was never turned in by a third-party registration organization; a serviceman who was moved from base to base and couldn't meet the deadline to register. Many never received the absentee ballots they requested.

It is clear from the study as well as from the testimony of other experts that the cumbersome, paper-based system of voter registration needs to be overhauled. Not only is it the prime reason that many voters are blocked from casting ballots, but it diverts local election officials from more critical tasks such as training poll workers or processing absentee ballots. Voting rights advocates make a strong case for shifting the onus for registration from voters to the state, using technology and existing databases (such as tax records and motor vehicle lists) to build a permanent roster. Voters should have a convenient way of verifying that they are properly registered, and there is no reason that they should lose their right to vote simply because they move to another block or state or change their names.

The Rules Committee hearing was billed as just a start in laying out the issues. Congress is right to tread carefully in coming up with effective solutions. But, by the same token, it shouldn't allow another election in which so many citizens are shut out.