If you’ve been following the presidential campaign the last few weeks, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of John McCain going on one of his well-rehearsed rants about the community organizing group ACORN and how its voter registration campaigns may amount to “one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country.”
With no evidence coming to light so far to back up these attacks, and virtually no evidence of voter fraud in general, many have rightly criticized these attacks for what they are: strident attempts to give cover for an ongoing campaign of voter suppression. With the boogeyman of voter fraud at their back, conservatives have been mounting campaigns to purge the voting rolls and block voter registration in states across the country.
These assaults on democratic participation–inevitably targeted at the least empowered members of our society–are frightening in the extreme. However, without proper systems in place to ensure that eligible voters don’t fall through the cracks and end up needing the assistance of groups like ACORN to register, we can expect these baseless attacks to continue, undermining both people’s fundamental right to vote and their faith in the fairness of our elections.
Fortunately, there are policy options available to circumvent voter fraud claims and guarantee all eligible voters’ right to democratic participation. These policies fall under the umbrella of universal voter registration, a cause that should gain increasing momentum as groups like New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and FairVote have identified this as a critical reform for moving our voting systems into the twenty-first century.
Universal registration is based on the very simple premise that it should be the government’s responsibility to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote is automatically registered to do so.
As election reforms go, universal registration is comparatively easy to implement. We already have databases with the information necessary to automatically register a huge swath of eligible but unregistered voters. Since this information is maintained mostly at the state level, we can move toward universal registration by passing state-level legislation, circumventing the stagnation that has come to so thoroughly dominate Congressional policy debates.
The most straightforward way to move toward universal registration is to use the information already being gathered by the Department of Motor Vehicles, income tax authorities, and public assistance agencies in each state. If we simply required that such agencies pass on personal data to election administrators as they gather it, we could relatively easily verify people’s eligibility and then add them to the roles, thus vastly increase the number of registered voters while maintaining the integrity of the voting rolls.
The National Voter Registration Act already requires that many such agencies provide people with the option to register. There’s no reason why states couldn’t extend this provision to a mandate to automatically register people. States with more ambition could also mine and cross check the already existing data to generate even more complete voter rolls.
There are many other ways for states to increase the percentage of eligible voters who are registered. For starters, states could institute pre-registration systems in high schools so that every student would automatically be registered to vote upon turning eighteen. As an added measure, states could update voters’ registration information whenever they file a change of address with the postal service so that the ten percent or more of voters who move in any given year don’t fall off the rolls. Minnesota has recently passed a law to do just that. And as a final protection against eligible voters falling through the cracks, states should allow voters to register at their polling place on election day. The nine states that already provide such an option have voter turnouts that are 12 percent higher than that in states that don’t.
The benefits of universal registration are as numerous as the methods to implement it. By registering the bulk of voters ahead of time, universal registration would avoid undue burdens on already strained election officials. It would prevent the kind of voter suppression tactics that have swelled in the wake of the ACORN controversy.
But most importantly, implementing universal registration would allow all of us to have full confidence in the fairness and honesty of our elections. As the cradle of modern democracy, America deserves elections that uphold the principle of equal representation upon which our nation was founded. Universal registration is a key step realizing the promise of that founding principle.