Election Day Registration

Published July 27th 2009 in Washington Post
IF YOU make it easier to vote, more people will vote. That has proved to be the case in states that have cleared away unnecessary hurdles to the ballot. And it is the premise behind a noteworthy proposal to reform elections in the District of Columbia.

The Omnibus Election Reform Act of 2009 aims to give more D.C. residents the opportunity to vote by allowing Election Day voter registration and eliminating restrictions on absentee and early voting. The bill, the brainchild of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), also targets younger voters in two significant ways. For the first time, 16-year-olds would be able to pre-register, and 17-year-olds would be permitted to vote in primary elections if they would be 18 by the general election.

Election Day registration -- eliminating the 30-day, pre-election deadline so people can register and vote the same day -- has emerged as the most contentious issue, with some fearful of the potential for fraud. But the experience of the nine states that allow same-day registration shows no compromise to the integrity of the voting process but a boost in voter participation. Indeed, a study by the public policy group Demos found that voter turnout in the 2008 election was 7 percentage points higher in states that allowed Election Day registration than in states that prohibited the practice.

The District's voter participation rate is below the national average, and a quarter to a third of its residents are not registered. It's encouraging, then, that Ms. Cheh also wants to look at the feasibility of universal voter registration. This would shift the impetus for registering voters from the individual to the city, which would use existing data from the tax or driver license rolls to assemble the list of eligible voters. No state has yet to adopt universal voter registration. But the idea, common in European democracies, is the subject of a careful study by the Brennan Center for Justice and seems to be gaining traction.

We hope that the D.C. Council adopts this bill, with one proviso. The provision to create an advisory council to the Board of Elections and Ethics needs to be rethought. Not only is the exact role of this board unclear, but there is a danger that its members, most appointed by the mayor and council, could politicize what must be an independent, nonpartisan process.