Modernizing Voter Registration: An Overview of the American Enterprise Institute Conference

by Christina Grier // Published September 22, 2011
AEI Conference Overview Blog picture

The American Enterprise Institute held a conference on September 19th discussing the ways in which states currently handle voter registration and ways to improve it. Two groups of electoral reform experts, each with three panelists, plunged into discourse regarding the complications of current voter registration systems and possible solutions to ameliorate how citizens go about registering to vote. 

A few key points were made clear about why voter registration is even necessary. Looking back on the history of elections, there once was a time when elections were more or less debates over the candidates, and eligible voters able to participate cast their vote by orally stating the candidate they supported. This method of voting was prone to be rigged with fraud, intimidation to vote for a specific candidate, and even riots, as there was no way to ensure that only those people who met the requirements to vote were the ones actually voting. Voter registration was introduced in part as a way to validate eligible voters while also keeping those who were not eligible away from the polls.

Maintaining accurate registration rolls has been a difficult task for many states. For example, it is easy to look at the way European countries handle voter registration and question why the U.S. does not share in the same success stories as Europe— having significantly higher rates of citizens registered to vote and lower rates of errors in the voter rolls.

One reason is that the United States is unique in having such an extremely mobile population. As stated by Charles Stewart III, professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, within a four year time span, 85 million people move throughout the United States, with 45 million changes of address. That is a lot of people to track, and with each state having its own regulations about voter registration, citizens may not be informed about that information and may be unaware that they must update their voter registration in compliance with the laws of the new state in which they reside.

Accompanying this burden of citizens taking the initiative to keep their voter registration up to date is poor record-keeping by some states. Since the 2000 presidential election especially, states have been much more cautious about purging voters from the rolls in order to avoid accidentally getting rid of voters who are still eligible.

The Director of Elections for the state of Ohio, Matthew Damschroder, highlighted three problems that hurt state Board of Elections the most. 

•First, most of the country still relies on paper-based methods of registration forms. –This brings the complication of trying to read the hand-writing of citizens. If an election official entering the registration information into the computer system cannot read the hand-writing, and inputs a misspelled name, for example, this can cause major problems when that voter shows up to vote on Election Day.

•Second, registration information is unverifiable by the voter.—Often times, citizens send off their registration form and simply hope for the best. It is not standard practice in every state to have citizens verify that the information election commissions have in their system is in fact correct.

•Third, the current registration system is dependent on “third parties” (not political parties, but independent associations).—People from various organizations get eligible voters to fill out registration forms that those third parties will then drop off to election boards for the applicant. This is not always reliable. In Ohio, a woman working for a third party entity had five-hundred registration forms sitting in the back seat of her car, along with her laptop. When her car was broken into, the thief not only stole her laptop, but made off with the registration forms as well, seemingly useless items that were then discarded in a dumpster. The registration forms were found the day after the registration deadline, and hundreds of eligible citizens who thought they were registered showed up on Election Day to find out that they in fact were not, thus losing their ability to vote.

In light of the many factors like these that signal a registration system in distress, there is some hope to having a better voter registration system. The Pew Center on the States announced a new approach to reforming the registration system. Pew brought together 42 technical experts, academics, and election officials from 21 states to produce a plan for better handling voter registration. The result was the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, where data on people who may be a new voter or may be moving can easily be shared between states. ERIC would allow states to update records on existing voters and get rid of duplicate and invalid records from state files.


Here’s a reminder about FairVote’s stance on modernizing voter registration. We believe:

  • States should establish means to automatically place eligible voters on registration rolls, ideally based on a unique national government identifier- a kind of “Democracy Passport.”

  • The federal government should establish minimum standards that all states must meet to ensure all eligible voters are registered and that provide a means to establish a more nationally coherent voter roll.

  • States should establish a standard pre-registration age of 16, actively (and perhaps automatically) registering citizens in their high schools and at the DMV in conjunction with a voting curriculum that will prepare first-time voters to vote as soon as they turn 18 years old.


To learn more about FairVote’s position on voter registration visit Universal Voter Registration, and click here to watch the full broadcast of AEI’s Bringing Voter Registration into the 21st Century conference.