By Rob Richie and Adam Fogel
Published October 30th 2008 in Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Blaming ACORN for our voter registration system is a classic failure of missing the forest for the trees. Amidst accusations of ACORN putting our democracy in jeopardy, few are asking why private groups are even in the business of voter registration drives. The answer is that the United States is one of the few democracies where the federal government doesn’t assume responsibility for establishing full and accurate voter rolls — and it just isn’t working.
Each election cycle, scores of generally well-intentioned organizations and individuals register millions of new people to vote, and inevitably accusations of voter registration fraud — often mistakenly termed “voter fraud” — follow. Some canvassers submit fraudulent names for extra pay; this is what ACORN has been accused of. Many citizens submit forms with inaccurate information.
Although highly unlikely to impact the actual casting of votes, voter registration fraud is serious — it wastes all-too-scarce resources of local election offices, balloons voter rolls with fake names and increases the odds of Election Day confusion. Ending voter registration fraud is a big reason for the government to modernize registration.
These problems are part of a much bigger failure in how we run elections. Nearly a third of eligible voters aren’t registered to vote and our turnout rates are among the lowest in the world. That’s why groups like ACORN have to pour resources into voter registration drives every four years instead of focusing on other means to empower people in their communities.
The problem is our “opt-in,” self-initiated voter registration system. Right now the onus is on citizens to update their information, ensure correct spelling and cancel old registrations when they move. Without a parent who votes or a motivated high school teacher handing out voter registration forms, many young people never register or learn the basics of participation — as if preparation for citizenship weren’t an obvious goal of an effective public school system.
Low voter registration contributes directly to low voter turnout. Once registered, people are much more likely to vote in big elections. In 2004, the U.S. Census reported participation rates of more than 85 percent of registered voters. Four in five registered voters in the 18 to 24-year-old cohort showed up. But even 100 percent turnout of registered voters would leave us with lower turnout than most other well-established democracies.
At the same time, many people are on the rolls more than once and our rolls are cluttered with people who have died or moved. Alaska notoriously has more registered voters than eligible adults.
Implementing a few common sense reforms would go a long way in solving our voter registration problems and lessen the necessity of groups seeking to register so many new voters every four years.
One example is seeking to register every citizen before they reach voting age by following the lead of Hawaii and Florida in allowing 16-year-olds to register to vote, with their names automatically added to the voter rolls when they reach 18. This change would ideally be twinned with systematic registration of young people in high schools and at driver’s license agencies and “voter’s ed” classes on the mechanics of participation in communities. Other sensible proposals include Election Day registration and moving to making voter registration permanent through automatic updates of registration with changes of address.
More broadly, it’s time for the government to take on the responsibility of establishing full and accurate voter rolls. This goal is not rocket science — it’s the international norm and the very best way to prevent voter registration fraud and our low rates of voter registration.
Our ultimate goal should be a democracy where our policies anticipate participation. All eligible voters, regardless of their parents’ voting behavior or where they grow up, should be registered to vote. All students should leave school grounded in an understanding of and an appreciation for our democracy and their role in it. It’s time to respect — and protect — every vote.
• Rob Richie is the executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit election reform and voting rights organization in Takoma Park, MD. Adam Fogel directs FairVote’s Right to Vote Initiative.