February 11, 2005

Same Day Voter Registration Can Boost Participation

Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the world. When people don't participate in the system, they tend to have less confidence in the political decisions that result.

Restrictive voter registration requirements make it difficult for many to vote. As usual, poor people have a harder time of it. Poor people tend to have less stable living arrangements and may have to move more often. Actually, anybody who moves is going to have a lot going on in their lives. Updating their voter registration may not be their top priority.

There have been efforts to simplify the process. Motor Voter laws that allow you to register to vote when you get a driver's license are one example. Mail in registration is another. Voting by mail works for many people.

Most states cut off voter registration about a month before the election. This is so the election department has time to compile and print up comprehensive lists ready to use on election day. But, this is just when things are getting interesting and new voters are most motivated to get involved. In Washington, mail in registrations have that 30 day cut off but a voter can register in person at their county auditor's office for another two weeks. Curiously, I was told at my local Auditor's office that a completed form from a voter registration drive turned in to the auditor by anyone other than the voter was considered a mail in registration and did not qualify for the extra time even though they had it in hand. I never did understand why it made a difference who handed the form over the counter. Certainly it is confusing and disappointing to a citizen who finally gets motivated to vote, only to be told that they missed the deadline.

Currently six states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho and 3 others) get around this problem by allowing election day registration. North Dakota abolished voter registration altogether 50 years ago. These states show higher rates of voter participation than the rest of the country. An analysis of voting trends from 1996-2000 showed the greatest increase in turnout in the states that have same day registration. When a 2002 Harris poll asked what would help get them to the polls, non-voters ranked same day registration at the top of the list.

Objectors to same day registration claim that it would promote voter fraud, but this has not been borne out by the experience of those states that use it. Voters are required to sign an affidavit that they are qualified to vote and show proof of identity and residence. This is basically the same as for advance registration. If there are concerns about somebody voting twice, same day registrants can be given a provisional ballot that will be counted after a cross-check of records show that there is no duplication. In fact, a better system for checking on eligibility could actually reduce fraud. Perhaps we could look towards Afghanistan and Iraq and use the finger dipped in indelible ink system to prevent double voting.

Following North Dakota's lead and abolishing voter registration would save the money currently spent on maintaining those records. Since it would also require each voter to show their current residence when they vote, it would automatically eliminate the problem of people neglecting to update their registration.

With voter confidence in the integrity of our electoral processes waning and budget shortfalls challenging us to find more efficient ways to operate our local governments, now is a great time to look into some form of same day voter registration.

No comments: