The Right Way to Register Voters

Published July 24th 2009 in The New York Times
In the United States, the burden of registering falls squarely on voters. In countries where the government does more of the work, according to a new study, registration rates are much higher.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law looked at voter registration in 16 countries and four Canadian provinces. The registration rates ranged from 100 percent in Argentina and 97 percent in Belize to 68 percent in the United States. That 68 percent reflects poorly on American democracy. To live up to the ideal of the founders of a nation governed with the consent of the governed, the United States should aspire to get as close to full registration of eligible voters as possible.

Many of the countries and provinces in the study with the highest registration rates sign people up by using data borrowed from other government agencies. In France, when young people register for the military, their information is forwarded to election officials who then register them to vote. Quebec puts voters on the rolls when they turn 18, relying partly on information from the provincial health insurance agency.

In some jurisdictions, the government is even more active. Britain conducts mass mailings of voter registration materials, and Saskatchewan sends election officials door to door to register eligible voters.

In the American system, state and local officials, who have the primary responsibility in this area, have overwhelmingly failed to put in place the sort of system needed to bring eligible voters into the electorate. In many states, legislators and election officials have actually adopted policies designed to interfere with registration drives or erected other barriers.

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, widely known as the motor voter law, which required that registration materials be made available at motor vehicle and public welfare offices. But there have been widespread reports that even this modest law is not adequately enforced.

Bolder action is needed to impose a higher standard on the states. Senator Charles Schumer, the Democrat of New York who is chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, is at work on a national voter registration modernization bill. To be effective, it should follow the lead of nations that are far more serious than the United States about getting eligible voters on the rolls — and have the registration rates to prove it.

IRV Soars in Twin Cities, FairVote Corrects the Pundits on Meaning of Election Night '09
Election Day '09 was a roller-coaster for election reformers.  Instant runoff voting had a great night in Minnesota, where St. Paul voters chose to implement IRV for its city elections, and Minneapolis voters used IRV for the first time—with local media touting it as a big success. As the Star-Tribune noted in endorsing IRV for St. Paul, Tuesday’s elections give the Twin Cities a chance to show the whole state of Minnesota the benefits of adopting IRV. There were disappointments in Lowell and Pierce County too, but high-profile multi-candidate races in New Jersey and New York keep policymakers focused on ways to reform elections;  the Baltimore Sun and Miami Herald were among many newspapers publishing commentary from FairVote board member and former presidential candidate John Anderson on how IRV can mitigate the problems of plurality elections.

And as pundits try to make hay out of the national implications of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections, Rob Richie in the Huffington Post concludes that the gubernatorial elections have little bearing on federal elections.