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A Call For Universal Voter Registration | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

A Call For Universal Voter Registration

This is the third in a series of posts concerned with just democracy.The first was an overview of the current state of our electoral system;the second a look at the prospects for a national popular vote forpresident.

Between 2 and 4 million Americans were unable to vote in the lastelection because of problems with their registration. And that's justpeople who tried to vote; in 2006, there were more than 65 million whowere eligible to vote, but weren't even registered. That's a third ofpotential voters.

It doesn't have to be this way. Registration rates in other countriesfrequently run upwards of 90 percent (both Canada and France hit thatmark, for example, while Venezuela stands at roughly 94 percent, andRussia about 97). Now reformers are seizing the moment to use existinglaw to expand registration, as well as considering new laws that couldfinally put the United States on an equal footing with many of theworld's other democracies.

"That's a pretty staggering number," says Project Vote's executivedirector Michael Slater of the millions unable to cast a ballot in 2008."We don't have the egregious problems with voter registration that wehad in the past, but it's still a system that's far from perfect andit's still a system that's preventing people from voting in America."

As with too much else in America, the divide between the registered andthe unregistered isn't neutral. The think tank Demos estimates thatwhile 80 percent of citizens in households making $100,000 or more a year areregistered to vote, only 60 percent of those making less than $25,000 a yearcan say the same.

The National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993 and often known asthe 'Motor-Voter' Law because it made it possible to register to vote atyour local DMV, was intended not only to make registration easier, butto begin closing the chasm between rich and poor voters. Section 7 ofthe act instructed public assistance agencies to offer everyone whowalked through their doors an opportunity to register to vote. At firststates complied and registrations jumped, but as of 2006 voterregistration applications from public assistance agencies had plummetedfrom over 2.5 million to below 500,000.

Along with Project Vote and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil RightsUnder Law, Demos has set about challenging states to comply with theNVRA. In Missouri, the state's public assistance agencies had collecteda measly 15,500 registrations in 2005 and 2006. In the six months afterthe coalition won a court ruling against the state in July 2008, thosesame agencies saw 90,000 new registrations. North Carolina saw a similarsix-fold increase in registrations, while Virginia saw monthlyregistration applications leap eight-fold.

Iowa offers an even more compelling demonstration of the benefits ofenforcing the NVRA. Even though Iowa had one of the highest voterregistration rates in the country, after the Governor lit a fire underits public assistance agencies (or ordered its public assistanceagencies to comply with law), the state still saw a stampede of newvoters through those agencies' doors: a mind-boggling 3000 percentincrease over 2003. As a report issued by Project Vote and Demosconcludes, if this is what happens in a state with a strong registrationrate, states with low registration rates can expect even more dramaticresults.

On the other side of the scale, there's the state of Maryland. In thetwo years after the NVRA was passed, Maryland registered a mere 982voters via its public assistance agencies. After a private party filedsuit, the state got its act together. In 1999 and 2000, those sameagencies registered 32,250 people. Then the agreement by which the suithad been settled came to an end in 2001, and public assistanceregistrations tumbled back down to around 1,000. "Most states which arecovered by the NVRA are not in compliance," says Project Vote'sexecutive director, Michael Slater. "The lesson that we draw from thisis the old line that vigilance is the cost of liberty. Performance needsto be monitored and states that are failing need to be taken to task."Project Vote and Demos have already issued 'notice letters' to six ofthe forty-four states covered by the act that they're failing to comply,the first step toward taking legal action against them.

"The good news is the Justice Department is actually interested inenforcing this again," says Regina Eaton, the Deputy Director of theDemocracy Program at Demos. "We've already seen a marked change inattitude." 13 million people who make less than $25,000 a year aren'tregistered to vote. Their chances of voting just got a whole lot better.

Placing the burden on voters to register before they can participate inelections was first done in Massachusetts in 1801, but it was only afterthe 15th Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote andwaves of immigrants began arriving on the country's shores that suchlaws gained traction. Under the original Massachusetts law, townassessors drew up lists of voters, which were then publicly posted. Ifcome election day your name wasn't on the list, you could simply presentthe necessary documents and register to vote. Since then, many stateshave shifted the burden onto the voter and closed the window in whichit's possible to register. "Voter registration deadlines vary widelyacross the nation," says Demos' Eaton, observing that "these cut-offdates bear little relevance to a state's ability to run smoothelections."

As evidence, Eaton cites the experience of the nine states which nowallow voters to register and cast their ballot on the same day. Usuallyreferred to as election day registration (EDR) -- except in those stateslike North Carolina where election day is off limits, but voters canstill register and cast their ballot early, where it's therefore knownas same day registration -- this simple reform holds the potential todramatically increase participation in our democracy. Every one of thefive states with the highest percent turnout in 2008 used EDR, and onaverage, states with EDR saw turnout rates 7 percent higher than thosewithout. Historically, states with EDR have enjoyed an even greateradvantage, usually leading the rest of the country by between 10 and 12percent.

In the wake of the 2004 election, the AGs of New Hampshire and Wisconsinboth launched investigations of EDR voters for fraud. In both states,the practice was vindicated. Demos' early estimates suggest that in thelast election over 1.1 million Americans used EDR and SDR to vote. Iowa,which enacted EDR in 2007, saw the highest turnout in state history in2008, even as the number of provisional ballots cast (between 20 and 33percent of which often go uncounted) plunged by almost 70 percentbetween 2004 and 2008. Young voters in particular benefit from EDR. Asyoung Americans, especially college students, are highly mobile, EDRensures that they can show up at the polls and vote on Election Day.Research suggests that EDR could raise turnout of young voters inpresidential elections by 14 percent.

Yet these reforms still leave the burden of registration on the voter.The holy grail of registration reform remains universal registration. Asthe Election Protection coalition states in its report on the 2008election, this would mean a registration system that was automatic,permanent (providing voters an opportunity to update their registrationwhen they changed their name or address, for example), and allows forvoters to correct any mistakes on election day. "A system whereeverybody's registered in some fashion automatically is much better thanthe patchwork system we have now," says Regina Eaton of Demos. "But thatdoesn't mean we don't need a way to make corrections. And there will beerrors." In her analysis, EDR is part of the foundation of universalregistration.

Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice atNYU, calls universal registration "potentially the most significantimprovement since the Voting Rights Act of 1965." He sees it as thesurest path toward giving those 65 million more potential voters a voicein our democracy. "Roughly a third of eligible Americans still are notregistered," Waldman says. "They tend to be less educated. They tend tobe people who are locked out of the system. We don't expect people whoare going to court to rustle up their own juries. Making sure that everycitizen is registered should be a core responsibility of government."

Project Vote's Michael Slater is quick to sound a note of caution. Hepoints to the troubled implementation of the Help America Vote Act'srequirement that state's implement statewide voter registrationdatabases. "Creating a brand new untested system has a real risk ofmaking the system worse rather than better," he says. While he agreeswith "the central tenet," that the state and not the individual shouldbe responsible for registration, "we need to roll it out over a periodof time so we know what we're getting. In the meantime we need toenforce what we have already, which would get us a long way towarduniversal registration."

As of this writing, Senator Chuck Schumer is reportedly consideringintroducing legislation to this effect in Congress soon. We may not havesuch a long way to go.

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