How to Have Clean and Complete Voter Rolls

By Rob Richie & Steven Hill
Published March 14th 2005 in Knight Ridder Tribune
Our country's strength flows from its willingness to innovate and improve upon the American experiment in democracy. Recent presidential elections underscore the importance of revamping the way we register citizens to vote.

Currently, there are two widespread failures. First, our voter rolls are not clean and lead to uncertainty about voter fraud, such as people voting in two states and some places like Alaska having more registered voters than adults. Second, our voter rolls are not complete, with nearly a third of eligible voters -- about 60 million Americans -- not registered to vote. It's time to establish clean and complete voter rolls to preserve the integrity of elections and keep close elections in the hands of voters rather than judges.

Having so many unregistered citizens hurts voter turnout and causes great problems in elections. Under current laws, we naturally see major voter registration drives during election years. The result is a surge of registrations right before an election, leading to long lines at polling places, voters not receiving information about where to vote and turmoil over provisional and absentee ballots.

It all too easily leads to potential partisan fraud such as a Republican-linked voter registration firm in Nevada allegedly throwing out forms collected from voters registering as Democrats, and accusations of Democratic urban machines registering dead people to vote in cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. The inevitable result is judges getting involved in deciding close elections.

Pointing fingers and name-calling won't help us fix the problem. The way forward is to set a goal of 100 percent voter registration by establishing registration as a mutual responsibility of citizens and their government. It's the best way to bring together conservatives concerned about fraud in elections and liberals concerned about low voter registration. We need a coherent system that ensures all of us can vote, but none of us can vote more than once.

The United States in fact is one of the few democracies where the government does not take responsibility for registering its voters, which is why Iraq already has a higher share of its adult citizens registered to vote than the United State. The international norm is an orderly process of automatic voter registration of every citizen who reaches voting age. Because the government takes a proactive, ongoing role, registration occurs on a steady, rolling basis instead of in spurts tied to any specific election. Voters receive a unique identifier that ensures they don't vote more than once.

Not only does such a process provide nearly 100 percent voter registration, but it leads to much cleaner voter rolls and less voter fraud. With comprehensive databases and full registration, there is no longer a question about who is or is not registered. Everyone is registered.

The most comprehensive way to establish universal registration would be to have states take the next step beyond the statewide voter registration databases they already should have in place in 2006 and establish a national database and federal standards for assuring 100 percent registration of eligible voters. But there are easier steps states and localities can take immediately.

For instance, we can focus on the population that typically has the lowest rates of registration: young people. A state or county could have high schools pre-register to vote all their students as they turn 17. Alternatively, a state's Department of Motor Vehicles could pre-register all those under 18 as they obtain their learner's permits.

Once these pre-registrants turn 18, their registrations would become active automatically. They would receive a letter alerting them about their eligibility to vote, the location of their polling place, the date of the next election and their responsibilities when changing addresses.

Such changes would register far more young people in an orderly way and generate more understanding of the value of 100 percent registration. It would provide a means to introduce more young people to the importance of civic engagement because a natural complement to this policy would be a "voter's ed" curriculum for high schoolers, just as many have "driver's ed" now. Over time, as all 18-year-olds were registered to vote, the United States would move far closer to 100 percent voter registration.

Legislators in states like Illinois and Rhode Island are preparing legislation for such pre-registration. As we promise to export democracy abroad, let's take care of business at home. Policymakers should establish a clear goal: clean and complete voter rolls by the next presidential election in 2008.