Rob Richie speaks to American University about the value of universal registration
Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, responds to a presentation by Eric Fischer of Congressional Research Service at Conference: Are U.S. Elections Getting Better or Worse? Is HAVA Working? on March 29, 2006 at American University.

Thanks so much to the conference organizers for inviting me to participate today and to Eric and Kevin for their important contributions to the debate about improving voter registration.

I first want to acknowledge that I’m not in the trenches figuring out how to make our registration systems better this year. My kudos and good wishes to the Brennan Center, the State Network on Election Reform and the many of you here today who are engaged in that critically important task. But I can speak to what I believe we should aspire in our voter registration system and practical steps toward that aspiration

What do we want our representative democracy to look like? For FairVote, we want a system where every voter casts an equally meaningful and protected vote. It means challenging plurality-voting rules that undercut majority rule and fail to accommodate voter choice. It means challenging winner-take-all gerrymandered districts that make most elections for legislatures coronations rather than means to provide accountability and fair representation. It means challenging a presidential election system in which the presidential campaigns care about voters in a few states and nothing about the rest.

For FairVote, it also means a constitutionally protected right to vote. If there were any doubt that we lack a constitutional right to vote with any real teeth, the past year’s haphazard and often inefficient progress toward statewide voter registration databases – laid out so well in the Brennan Center’s recent report Making the List and as detailed in Eric and Kevin’s paper – should remove that doubt. The federal government through the Election Assistance Commission is exhorting and advising, but there seems to be no accountability, just like there was no national accountability for long lines in Ohio, bad ballot designs in Florida and most other troubles with our elections we all have observed in recent years. This again seems to be primarily a question of state authority, consistent with the fact that states are where most key decisions about the right to vote are made – and where its protections seem to lie.

With a federal constitutional right to vote with teeth, I certainly do not believe we would accept our current voter registration system; instead, we would move toward universal voter registration. With some three in ten eligible voters not registered – that’s some 60 million people -- our system is ridiculously outside of international norms and our government is falling far short of its obligations to provide fair and efficient elections. For me, we should have a clear aspiration: full and accurate voter rolls. Period. Anything short of that is not good enough, and I think the wise heads in this room should keep addressing how we can get there. It’s encouraging to me that at least one of our most influential Secretaries of State has told me that she supports universal voter registration if it can be combined with dropping requirements associated with the Help America Vote Act and with the NVRA that states today can find onerous. Universal voter registration should be a win-win for all sides – the federal government, states and individual Americans -- if done in the right way.

I’m sure you all know examples to show why our current system is so lacking, but let me remind people of two important ones from the 2004 election that, to me, show the value for both the government and voters in having full and accurate voter rolls. In Nevada, there were charges – apparently well-founded -- that a major voter registration firm was sorting completed registrations at the end of the day and throwing out ones where the voter registered for the party they didn’t like. These voters assumed they had registered, but in fact had not. When a case was brought to re-open voter registration to allow such voters to register, it was dealt with by a county judge, of all people. She threw it out, saying reopening the rolls might allow people to register who hadn’t tried registering before. And that was that for those potential voters.

In Ohio, we all know of the long lines many voters experienced in 2004. How many of those long lines were due to the surge in late voter registrations not giving administrators enough time to prepare appropriately for the actual number of voters coming to the polls? One thing we do know is that of the more than 150,000 provisional ballots cast in Ohio, the great majority of these ballots were ultimately counted as valid. That means that those voters had done nothing wrong; rather, there had been errors in processing registrations, presumably many done very close to the deadline.

Let me focus on one concrete situation where a better system would make eminent sense – one that is dramatic in its details, but very revealing in the lessons it provides about how to improve our system in general. Next month, New Orleans will hold critically important city elections for a mayor and new city council – obviously its first elections since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, leaving about only one-third of its pre-hurricane population. The election preparation is chaotic, to say the least, with only some 6,000 voters so far having requested absentee ballots and candidates trying to campaign in major cities in nearby states with the hopes of reaching likely voters.

What if instead of our current system, we had a voter registration system where as people changed their addresses, they could designate whether it’s permanent or temporary and have that automatically update their voter registration system? What if displaced voters then automatically received an absentee ballot and voter guides with real information about their choices? We can’t do that in a month in New Orleans, but shouldn’t that be our national aspiration?

For me, the fundamental purpose of voter registration is not just what Eric and Kevin say in their paper, which is “to restrict access to the voting booth.” Rather, for me, voter registration also ensures that everyone who’s eligible to vote knows they have a guaranteed opportunity to participate and that we make that opportunity as accessible and efficient as we can. It means being ready to run the best elections in the world. It’s like having a ticket to go to a big sports event you want to see. When you have that ticket, you know you have a seat. We want everyone to have a guaranteed seat at the table of our democracy.

Here’s a thought experiment about only seeking voter registration coherence at a state level. Imagine if all our votes were pooled together in a national popular vote for president in which every vote were of equal weight and equal value. Would we still let states act the way they do? Now, imagine that in 2009 we knew that we were likely to have this national election by, say, the year 2012. One of the points I want to leave with you today is that I think that’s going to be the case. I’m part of the National Popular Vote coalition that expects to be working with state legislators in all 50 states on a proposal for states to join together to assert their constitutional right to allocate electoral votes according to the best interests of their constituents and bind that agreement by means of an interstate compact. As our new report Presidential Election Inequality shows, without doubt those constituents’ interests would be better served by a national popular vote where every vote is equally meaningful and powerful no matter where it is cast. Based on the rapidly growing interest in our proposal, which already has been endorsed by such newspapers as the New York Times and Chicago Sun Times and introduced in five legislatures, I believe this plan will succeed in the coming years. Once we have a national popular vote, stopping at having reasonable accurate statewide rolls makes no more sense than having only county-level coherence did before 2004. We can do better and I suspect we will do better if the National Popular Vote effort is successful. Certainly that hope would be consistent with Eric and Kevin’s call for consensus standards on voter registration.

I will close with two practical suggestions to address Eric and Kevin’s statement in their paper that we will have difficulty going beyond voter-initiated voter registration in the United States.  First, we have been researching what cities can do for their elections that goes beyond what states do for state and federal elections. It turns out that cities can be quite forward-looking in their work. For example, they can expand the franchise, just as my home city of Takoma Park has done with non-citizens and which some cities could do for citizens with felony convictions. They also could explore coming up with their own system of voter registration -- again, only for their own elections. We hope to raise this in Takoma Park, which might be particularly easy to do as every legal resident who is 18 and over should be able to vote in city elections.

Second, I have a handout with me about how we can achieve 100% voter registration of all high school students. My friend Jamin Raskin, the Washington College of Law professor, is running for state senate in Maryland. He says that his biggest applause line consistently is when he says: “In my first week in Annapolis, I will introduce legislation making voter registration a condition of high school graduation.”

We don’t necessarily propose that a graduation requirement is the best and only way to achieve our goal, but right now not even half of eligible voters under 25 are registered to vote. As a general proposition, we want to look at groups of people who are moving from not being eligible to register to vote to being able to register to vote and see if we can systematically and efficiently add them to the voter rolls – another example being non-citizens becoming citizens. High schools seem to us to be an ideal place to start, and I’m pleased that our chairman John Anderson has joined with Election Assistance Commission vice-chairman Ray Martinez in writing an op-ed that will soon appear in the New York Times in support of this policy, with practical suggestions like lowering the age when people can register to 16 and having a “voting mechanics” module for high school students where they would learn about the mechanics of voting in their community, how to vote absentee and how to change voter registration information in the future -- and, with appropriate guidance, fill out a voter registration form.

Certainly I’d like to see a universal voter registration system a lot sooner, but perhaps in a generation such a policy would get us very close to it, particularly if combined with an efficient means of updating voter registrations when people move. At least we can say 100% high school registration is the right policy for the moment, and with appropriate funding, I suspect most of our election administrators would agree.
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