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21st Century Voter Registration
I strongly support Heartland Democracy's call for this 21st Century innovation in voter registration. We now have the technology to move toward universal and automatic voter registration. I am happy to see Heartland Democracy emerge to engage everyday people across our region in a conversation about innovative election practices. This is the kind of public engagement we need to do to realize the full potential of our democracy.
- Joan Growe, Minnesota Secretary of State, 1975-1999
Our current system of voter registration is archaic, causing issues like inaccurate voter rolls, high administrative costs, and low participation rates. In contrast, a 21st century voter registration system - universal voter registration - would help to increase voter participation, reduce swings in workloads for election administrators, create voter rolls that are complete and cleasned of outdated registrants, and, ultimately, foster greater trust in elections and in the legitimacy of election winners. While Heartland Democracy is not endorsing a specific proposal or system, it offers a menu of potential options to attain universal registration.
In the Midwest
Minnesota's legislature boldly passed HF1053 and SF660 in 2009, which would have automatically registered to vote all eligible residents who have a state ID card or drivers license. With strong mechanisms to ensure that only eligible voters made it onto the roles, alongside a process to help keep registrations updated and current, this bill was an innnovative way to make Minnesota's voters rolls more complete and clean. However, Governor Pawlenty vetoed this bill within a couple of days of its passage. You can read our response to this veto in our Op-Ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. We strongly urge the Minnesota legislature to again demonstrate its commitment to fair and clean elections by overriding the Governor's veto during this 2010 legislative session.
While Minnesota's bill is among the first of its kind in the Midwest, both Iowa and Wisconsin are equally well positioned to lead on this important reform. We welcome and support similar bills in these states and urge thier support and passage to help mkae voters roles more complete and clean, thereby ensuring the integrity of our elections.
Concerns about the current system
The United States voting system suffers from relatively low voter participation, confusing registration regulations, inefficiencies in registration processing, voter rolls with the potential for inaccuracies, voter disenfranchisement, and unnecessary registration costs that could be eliminiated. Many of these problems are the direct or indirect result
of our archaic system of voter registration, which requires voters themselves to
initiate and maintain their registration. This artifact of days gone by, in turn, presents
challenges for election officials in maintaining clean and accurate voter rolls.
Low Voter Participation: There is a direct correlation between voter registration and voter participation, and the United States suffers from one of the lowest voter participation rates in the world.
Inaccuracies in Voter Rolls: One out of every ten Americans moves each year, and each time, are responsible for re-registering at their new address, but most voters fail to cancel their previous registrations, leaving the potential for voter rolls to become “bloated” with multiple registrations and incorrect information. Additionally, eligible voters are occasionally wrongly purged from voter rolls.
Voter Discrimination and Disenfranchisement: The burdens of current voter registration systems fall disproportionately upon low income and less educated voters, who are more likely to move frequently and are forced to re-register with each move. They are also likelier to live in unconventional situations – such as shared apartments, with no utility bills to their name, or temporary shelters – that make proving residency difficult.
Wrongly Purging Eligible Voters: While practices vary between the states, many purge voters after a defined period of inactivity, even if voters are still eligible and reside at the same address.
Time and Fiscal Costs: The administrative cost of processing registrations and cleaning voter rolls, combined with the cost of voter registration drives by non-governmental groups, is staggering and unnecessary.
Potential for Fraud: While actual instances of fraud are extremely rare, most of the cases have been linked to voter registration issues.
21st Century Voter Registration
A 21st century voter registration system of universal voter registration would task the government in registering all eligible voters. The resulting benefits are many:
Complete and clean voter rolls. Voter rolls generated through universal voter registration use verified data from other government agencies, thereby heightening the accuracy and legitimacy of the information.
Increased voter participation. Voter participation is highly correlated with voter registration, so under a system where all eligible voters are registered on Election Day, more voters will likely choose to participate.
Resource-efficient system: Registrations under a universal system are received on a steady, ongoing basis, rather than in floods prior to an election. The streamlined process helps to facilitate a more orderly and efficient system.
Fiscal savings: Because registrations under a 21st century voter registration system happen electronically, counties and states can reap huge cost savings. The Minnesota Secretary of States office estimates that it would save "several million dollars" each election cycle.
Fosters greater trust in election systems and the government. By eliminating barriers to voting, state governments would raise their accountability to voters, fostering confidence and trust in the system by ensuring that every eligible voter could cast his or her ballot on Election Day.
Shorter lines at the polls. Time currently spent searching for wrongly purged voters on
More effective voter education efforts. Voter education campaigns under a universal system could target all eligible voters, rather than just those who have individually registered under our current system.
Less hassle for voters. Instead of requiring citizens to provide yet again to the government information they already have - address, proof of eligibility, etc. - a 21st century voter registration system would no longer burden and hassle voters with this redundent task.
How It can be done
At least 24 countries use some sort of universal (or automatic) voter registration system. While the ideal model would be national in scope, managed by the federal government, states can take steps to move very close to 100% voter registration.
While Heartland Democracy is not endorsing a specific proposal or method, it offers the following as a menu of potential options.
Use state drivers license and identification card registries, state tax rolls, and state social benefit rolls to populate voter rolls. Nearly all citizens drive, pay taxes, or receive some sort of state benefits, and all of these systems collect information - primarily social security numbers - that can verify eligibility.
Pre-register high school students. States could lower the voter registration age to 16 and have all high school students of this age to register. Then, when they turn 18, their registrations are activated and they can be sent voting information.
Update rolls with current mailing addresses. One in ten Americans move each year, and the vast majority of citizens update their address with the U.S. Post Office. By updating voter rolls with current mailing addresses, a 21st century voter registration system can both ensure that voters are registered in their correct precinct on Election Day, as well as eliminate rolls bloated with outdated registration addresses.
Continue to offer individual and same-day voter registration to ensure that any voter who has not made it onto the registry will still be able to cast his ballot on Election Day.
Offer an opt-out feature for those who do not wish to be registered to vote.
Provide a website and call-in number for voters to check the status of their registration. Voters can check - and update, if necessary - information on their voter file and would help address the confusion of whether or not a voter will be on the rolls come Election Day.
Where it Already Works
Similar systems currently dominate throughout the industrialized world, each widely successful in keeping accurate rolls and conducting elections with high voter participation. The U.K. has a dual system of individual (like the U.S.) and household registration that is estimated to register more than 90 percent of eligible voters. Canada offers a voter registration box on income tax forms. In Norway all residents are included in a national register, and eligible voters each receive a card in the mail with the date of the election and time and location of their polling place. The United States lags behind with an archaic system that is ineffective and inefficient.
Why it matters to you - Heartland Values
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