Don’t ask, just register everyone to vote

Before every election, an army of campaign workers, political party loyalists and community organizers grab their clipboards and pens and try to get people to register to vote. But this perpetual, last-minute frenzy of voter registration has many pitfalls: Hurriedly filled-in voter registration forms are often incomplete or illegible. Citizens who sign up at the last minute may not have been paying attention to issues and candidates. Volunteers may mis-file the forms or give inaccurate information.  On election day, improperly registered voters often find themselves disenfranchised. And despite many efforts to get it right, an estimated 65 million Americans are not registered to vote.

Our current system of voter registration is fundamentally flawed, and we can do better, say voting rights advocates. Here’s the main problem:  Our current system requires potential voters to initiate the registration process themselves. And while it’s a noble ideal to believe that American citizens will spontaneously register—understanding the importance, value and privilege of having the right to vote— reality tells us that, for a predictably large percentage of Americans, that’s just not happening.

Even in 2008’s historic presidential election, when voter interest and turnout reached unprecedented levels, 30 percent of citizens eligible to register didn’t exercise that option.

Our system takes a hands-off approach to voter registration, in which “the construction of voter rolls is left up to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, political parties, election officials and active citizens.  Sadly, this…approach invites voter registration fraud. It is not surprising that voter rolls are neither complete nor accurate.”

A better approach, according to voting rights groups, would be automatic, universal voter registration.

Dragging voter registration into the 21st Century

Fair Vote, a leading advocate for modernizing voter registration, puts it this way:

Universal voter registration would modernize voter registration in the U.S. so the government shares responsibility for registration with its citizens to ensure full and accurate voter rolls. Complete registration will significantly reduce duplications and omissions on the voter rolls and help create a system that balances the twin goals of election accessibility and security…

Voter registration should be the mutual responsibility of citizens and their government.  The government should not only facilitate registration; it should actively register adults who are eligible to vote as part of its responsibility to have accurate rolls. 100% voter registration should be the goal.

One giant leap toward universal registration was the enactment, in 1993, of the National Voter Registration Act [NVRA]. Informally known as the “motor voter” law, it requires states to allow citizens to register to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license, ore when they apply, re-certify, renew or change address at a public or disability assistance agency. But after a lot of initial activity and success, compliance with NVRA has dropped significantly, says Progressive States Network.

But there’s more work to be done.

A fact sheet published by the The Brennan Center for Justice gives a comprehensive description of the mechanics and pluses of modernizing voter registration:


Automatic Registration: State election officials automatically register consenting eligible citizens by electronically transmitting reliable information from other government lists.

Portability: Once an eligible citizen is on a state’s voter rolls, she remains registered and her records move with her so long as she continues to reside in that state.

Safety Net: Eligible citizens can correct errors on the voter rolls before and on Election Day.

Online Access: Voters can register, check and update their registration records through a secure and accessible online portal.


The building blocks of a modernized system are already in place. Thanks to a 2002 federal law, every state now has (or soon will have) a computerized statewide voter registration database capable of sharing information in some form with other government databases.

Each component of VRM is currently being used successfully in multiple states across the country, ranging from Arizona to Florida, Kansas to Ohio to Utah, and Maine to Washington. Also, 38 state DMVs automatically register all eligible young men for the Selective Service, as do a variety of other federal and state agencies.

Automatic transmission of voter registrations increases registration rates. In Washington, the number of voter registration transactions at DMVs doubled after the system was automated. In South Dakota, they increased almost eight-fold.

Other major democracies successfully modernized their voter registration systems, reducing costs and increasing registration rates. Canada, France, Germany, and Great Britain each use records from a variety of government agencies to register well over 90% of their eligible citizens.


Using computers for voter registration and updates is far cheaper than paper-based systems.

Every state that has implemented elements of VRM has saved money. For example, Washington spent about $280K to automate voter registration at DMVs and introduce online registration. The Secretary of State’s office saved over $125K in the first year, and the counties saved even more.

Processing a paper voter registration form costs 83¢, compared to 3¢ for an online form, according to reports from Maricopa County, Arizona.

Canada fully recouped the cost of its VRM system in one national election.

How to get it done

Fair Vote offers seven practical steps that can make universal voter registration a reality:

1. Use existing government databases to automatically register all citizens to vote.
2. Create a fail safe policy to ensure voters left off the rolls can register and vote on Election Day.
3. Set a uniform voter registration age of 16-years-old to systematically register youth. Tie this policy with a national “voting curriculum” in every high school.
4. Require U.S. citizens to register to vote when completing taxes, or actively opt-out of the process.
5. Tie Post Office Change of Address forms to the voter registration database
6. Require state or local governments to send every residence a notice of those registered at that location. Residents may then make changes as needed and return the updated form.
7. Provide every U.S. citizen, upon birth or after naturalization, a voter registration number similar to a social security number to be used in all elections and activated when a voter turns 18.

Support for universal voter registration

Attorney General Eric Holder says, “Voter registration modernization would remove the single biggest barrier to voting in the United States—our antiquated registration system.” He and other supporters call this agenda a win-win for everyone.

One plus is that universal registration offers political benefits: for conservatives, who are concerned about fraudulent voter registrations, and for liberals, who are concerned about anemic political participation. Or, as New York Senator Charles Schumer has said: “Democrats believe it is too hard for people to register and vote; Republicans believe it is too easy to register and vote fraudulently. There may be a way to solve both problems simultaneously through new technology and forge a better bipartisan solution.”

Voter registration began in the 19th Century as a way of keeping foreign-born citizens, poor people and African-Americans from voting. Throughout the 2oth Century, voting rights expanded, most notably to women and African-Americans. More recent developments  make it clear “that the country been progressing towards federal-run universal registration since its inception,” says Alexander Keyssar, author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.  “Universal registration is enfranchising, and will help to remind every American that their participation is sought, and that their voice is a vital part of the political process.”