American way of registering voters: everything but universal, and far from being efficient

by Eve Robert // Published November 18, 2008

89.31% of the Voting Age Population is registered to vote in Canada, and 97.2% in Sweden. In contrast, in the USA, one third of voters of voters are left behind- even in such a critical and vibrant election as this one. Indeed, the US system of voter registration ("self-initiated system"), which puts the burden of registration exclusively on the voter, not on the government, very often acts as a barrier to political participation and turnout. Because registration is voluntary, this system requires citizen initiative and thus tends to leave out many who would otherwise be eligible to vote. In fact, many eligible voters may be unable to register (women with small children, those without easy access to transportation, people who have a job with busy schedule, students�) or simply forget to do it...Thus the voter registration system may partly explain why the United States ranks 140 out of 163 countries based on turnout of the voting age population since 1990, according to experts who study elections abroad [1]

Another major drawback of this system is the large role left to civic-minded organizations, partisans and religious organizations, that actually increases the risk of election fraud- this phenomenon has been recently highlighted by the ACORN polemic, as it has been during the 2004 elections by partisan organizations in Nevada throwing away voter registration forms filled out by citizens who supported the opposing party. In addition, our voter registration system is to a large extent responsible of the registration rush phenomenon not giving administrators enough time to prepare appropriately for the actual number of voters coming to the polls, which often results in long lines.

In contrast, the Canadian and Swedish systems (as well as most democracies, notably Japan, New Zealand, Italy, Israel, and even Iraq) are "state-initiated" ones: in these countries, the governments consider that they have the responsibility to protect their citizens' constitutional right to vote by ensuring that they are duly registered to vote. Voting is thus protected as a fundamental citizenship right.

Technically, how does it work�? How do, in practical terms, the governments ensure full, accurate and inclusive voting rolls?

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State-initiated voter registration systems may actually take many forms: Italian-style links to national population registers to records of residence maintained by police or local governments, links to application for government services, door-to-door registration campaigns� The solution chosen by both the Canadian and the Swedish election authorities is the formation of partnerships with other government bodies in order to facilitate list-updates. When citizens change their place of residence, they often inform government agencies such as the post office, the tax bureau, the health insurance system� Data-sharing partnerships allow the election authority to receive regular updates of changes to these bodies' files. This makes it possible to update the electoral register without any direct contact between the voter and the election authority.

These partnerships are particularly efficient and useful regarding deletions (voters that no longer qualify: death, criminal conviction�) since this information is often failed to be provided by the individual or his or her family. List maintenance procedures can be designed to incorporate data from sources such as government vital statistics offices, the obituary page in newspapers, funeral homes, courts, health authorities (information on mental incompetence).

For instance, Elections Canada, the Canadian election management body, updates the voter rolls thanks to data provided by Canada Revenue Agency, Canada Post, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and the Local registrars of motor vehicles about changes of adress, citizens turning 18, new citizens and deaths.

In Sweden, the maintenance of a general population register is handled by the local offices of the Swedish Tax Administration. Most information details are provided by other agencies that frequently interact with the public such as the Social insurance offices, municipalities, police�In addition, in a small number of cases (birth, residence, marriage) every individual resident is required by law to provide the local tax office certain info as well as changes of amendments to such recorded info (divorce, change of name, change of residence�). The information contained in the population registration database is shared with other government agencies, including the Swedish Election Authority, on a need basis: for every election, the Swedish electoral authority extracts information from this database to compile an electoral roll for each district (which includes the name, address, place of birth, and marital status of each individual), and then sends proof of registration to each eligible voter.

Indeed, the American way of conducting voter registration and elections is anything but universal, and far from being efficient. Time to catch up! [1]Voter turnout since 1945: a global report. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2002