Universal Voter Registration on a national scale

The Progressive States Network's focus this week is on universal voter registration.  This is an idea whose time is long overdue.  The kind of attention and pitched battles we fight over voter registration is nothing short of ridiculous, if you stop to think about it.  Basically, the purpose of voter registration is to allow the state to build a database of eligible voters, and to locate those voters in cities and precincts.  This is fundamentally a technical challenge, and really, not a very difficult one.  The fact that voter registration is a difficult and mammoth task is, in the age of sophisticated data matching algorithms and large scale database systems, a national embarrassment.

PSN, whose focus is on state policy reforms, rightly suggests a number of incremental steps towards making voter registration easier and more widespread.  These steps include aggressively mining databases to track citizens as they move about the state, making voter registration available at more places besides the DMV, etc.

That is a good start, but it seems to me that Congress could one-up the states, without too much effort.  Simply by matching records from the social security database with the list of tax returns each election year, the federal government could produce a "pretty good" list of all 18-year-old citizens, and the addresses for each of those people.  There would be some rate of error - as in the case of young adults who live in one place when they file their taxes in April, and have moved by the time elections come around in November - but I think it would be a reasonably good approximation.  Why not make that list the default voter roll, and then allow citizens who moved, or who didn't file taxes for some reason, to add themselves to the rolls after the fact?  To make things a little smoother, citizens could be given a web-based and phone-based interface to the database, to allow them to check their own registration status, indicate an address change, or perhaps even to find their polling place or request an absentee ballot by mail.

Having worked on identifier matching algorithms in the past, I am reasonably certain that this is technically a fairly simple idea, and won't be a budget-buster.  In fact, to the degree that it allows states to slim down their voter registration infrastructure, it might even come out costing the combined federal and state budgets less than the current regime.  (A small cost would be added to the US budget, and many small-ish costs subtracted from state budgets.)

The problem, as I understand it, is one of jurisdiction: voter eligibility has always been a state concern, except where the US Constitution bars certain practices (poll taxes and sex discrimination, for example).  So while Congress can produce a first-guess voter list, it can't mandate that such a list become the default voter list for any state.  However, the simple creation of this database might be enough to get the ball rolling.  Giving states the chance to cut costs and simultaneously make voting easier for citizens could be a good enough incentive to sign on some early-adopter progressive states.  As the system gains popularity, it could eventually become the de facto standard, exerting pressure on more conservative states to follow suit.  Congress could, presumably, add more and more "carrots" to encourage states to adopt the first-guess voter list as their default.

This policy is simple, cheap, and low-profile enough that, I think, it could sail through Congress relatively easy.  It's the kind of "Government 2.0" reform which it seems will be all the rage in Obama's Washington.  And it could be a progressive positive feedback loop which would help make the country more progressive in the long run.

Tags: Government 2.0, progressive positive feedback loop, Progressive States Network, Universal Voter Registration (all tags)



Re: Universal Voter Registration on a national sca

A couple of problems with your proposal:
Non-citizen legal residents also have SSNs and file tax returns, so the default list would have to be cross-checked with some sort of INS list, which could be a bureaucratic nightmare as anyone who has dealt with the INS could imagine.

Also there are plenty of potential eligible voters, who for whatever reason, don't file tax returns:
-People over 18 who don't have a job (full-time college students, the unemployed who may not be receiving benefits, etc.)
-Tax evaders

by LSdemocrat1 2008-12-05 05:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Universal Voter Registration on a national sca

You've got a good point - I'm not sure if the Social Security database differentiates between citizens and noncitizens.  Though it seems like it shouldn't be all that difficult to resolve that, right?  Numbers are either assigned at birth or when someone (either a person born to US parents in a foreign country, or an immigrant) enters the country, I think, so, if the Social Security database doesn't include provenance information already, it shouldn't be too hard to add it.

As for the non-tax payer problem - that could indeed be a problem, especially with the effective unemployment rate as high as 10%.  Not all unemployed folks pay no taxes, though, and many college students do have jobs and pay taxes on them.  So I think in practice the number of people who slip through the cracks would be fairly small.  (Although, it should be noted, those people who do fall through the cracks would likely be progressives - which is certainly a downside to this idea.)

I should also stress that the idea is to create a first guess database, i.e. a starting point, not a final voter list.  Even if 10% of the country slips through the cracks, automatic registration of 90% of eligible voters would be a huge improvement over what we have.  Registering the remaining 10% should be relatively easy.

by Shai Sachs 2008-12-05 05:29AM | 0 recs
It's not even that hard

You really don't need all that fancy cross-checking.  Just set it up so that you can register same-day, like we do in Minnesota, with a utility bill.

Think about this: they're doing a recount of all ballots cast in Minnesota; have you heard anything about intentionally fraudulent voting?  Don't you think somebody may have noticed in the last month if our system of allowing people to vote were seriously flawed?

Simply computerize the database on a national level, which you can run checks on with other agency listings between elections if there's need.

by Dracomicron 2008-12-05 05:24AM | 0 recs
Re: It's not even that hard

I definitely like the idea of same-day registration, and I wish it were more widely available.  It's almost six of one, half dozen of the other, between universal voter registration and same-day registration.  The main differences, I guess, are a) municipalities can better anticipate the size of the electorate with UVR; and b) UVR has a psychological benefit, whereby everyone thinks they are automatically allowed to vote, rather than having to jump even a small hoop when they get to the polls.

But I'd certainly be happy if more states offered same-day registration, no question about it.

by Shai Sachs 2008-12-05 05:32AM | 0 recs
Some combination would easily work

You could have the UVR database and still allow for last-minute modifications via same-day registration.  Computers make this sort of thing comparatively trivial.

by Dracomicron 2008-12-05 06:07AM | 0 recs
Re: It's not even that hard

have you heard anything about intentionally fraudulent voting?

That is an excellent point.  I really hope this becomes a talking point no matter who wins in Minnesota.  The few scattered moments of Hannity & Colmes I've seen focuses very heavily on the several hundred ballots that have been mistakenly misplaced or what have you.  I think it'd be a tragedy if that became the narrative.  Minnesota is the gold standard when it comes to voter turnout and executing elections.

by the mollusk 2008-12-05 06:21AM | 0 recs
We don't even really have a 'machine'

Our high voter turnout is primarally due to a spirit of civic responsibility rather than any party machinery.

Anyways, votes are going to be lost in every large-scale election, at a rate of a small number per million.  That's human nature and it's not sinister.  Republicans will note that "found" votes are usually favoring the Democrat; that's more due to the fact that the lost votes are usually in the extremely busy city precincts that tend to vote Democratic anyway than any sort of hanky-panky.

by Dracomicron 2008-12-05 06:53AM | 0 recs
Re: We don't even really have a 'machine'

Yeah, that was really my point.  If 300 votes out of 3 million are lost, that's a 0.01 % loss rate.  Most public and private ventures would kill to be that waterproof.  And this is done in a state that has same-day registration and motor voter laws.  It really flies in the face of all the Republican arguments about voter registration.

by the mollusk 2008-12-05 08:52AM | 0 recs
Re: It's not even that hard

I've also been impressed by the way the recount is proceeding in a smooth, orderly fashion; this is orders of magnitude better than the Florida 2000 recount.  And on top of that, even with the high contested ballot rates, the number of ballots we're talking about - a few thousand statewide? - is good proof that optical scan works really well.

by Shai Sachs 2008-12-05 07:03AM | 0 recs
Quite so

Chris Matthews has been going on about how many contested ballots there are.  Six thousand is a lot?  Really?

by Dracomicron 2008-12-05 10:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Universal Voter Registration

I heard some rightwing douchebag the other day making an argument that motor voter and same-day registration was a failure because it didn't lead to record voter turnout in 2008.  There central point was that making better voter rolls and making it easier for people to vote didn't effect turnout overall, but turnout only among some groups.  They are right, of course, but the opposite is also true:  Making voting more difficult decreases turnout among those same groups.

It is not an accident that voting is as difficult as it is in this country.  That said, there's no reason not to try to make it easier.

by the mollusk 2008-12-05 06:24AM | 0 recs
Re: Universal Voter Registration

Yeah - in some places registration and voting requirements are intentionally high, in order to prevent the "wrong" people from voting.  And I think those places will resist universal voter registration tooth-and-nail.  On the other hand, registering 90+% of the population automatically in places that are less stringent will definitely make voting easier, and will create a more progressive electorate, I think.

by Shai Sachs 2008-12-05 07:06AM | 0 recs
Re: Universal Voter Registration

On the other hand, registering 90+% of the population automatically in places that are less stringent will definitely make voting easier, and will create a more progressive electorate, I think.

Precisely.  And this is why it's not a bipartisan issue.  There is a lot of hay to be made in either discouraging people from voting or making it too difficult.

by the mollusk 2008-12-05 08:48AM | 0 recs
National ID/Voter Card

I'd rather just tie voter registration into a national ID card.  Make it government-funded.  Make sure that everyone gets a card.  Have a grandfather clause where everyone 60 or older when the card is implemented doesn't have to get one and can register to vote by the old rules.  Otherwise, there is a national voter roll which includes the name of every citizen.

This proposal will get bipartisan support from the populist nativists in the Republican Party.

by Anthony de Jesus 2008-12-05 08:58AM | 0 recs
I'm against universal registration..

I prefer
same day registration,
*universal early voting (that includes at least 2 saturdays) and *absentee ballot on demand (no reason required), along with *liberalized voter registration ie credit card or utility bill, social security card, pay stub, state, fed or college id
*(the language in the bill should be such that states would not be allowed to add to these registration requirements).
*These requirements should pertain to all state wide elections

The reform should also include language that prevents states like Michigan from using voter registration information to change a voter's driver's information or other state/fed data base information. (generally speaking this MI law can result in the unenrollment of thousands from the registration rolls if your driver license address is different from your voter registration address)

This becomes problematic using college students as an example who may use their parent's home address on their driver's license. When they register to vote using their college address, their driver's license address automatically gets changed. If however they fail to use the change address form to register, their names get dropped from the registration rolls and they have to register again if they plan to vote. If they are not aware of this, it can lead to un welcomed surprises on election day. Surprises like "sorry but your not registered".

Michigan Law

Where to Register to Vote. You can register at many places, including:

At the clerk's office in the city or township where you live

  • At any Secretary of State branch office
  • By mail - you can get forms on line at www.michigan.gov or at any post office. If you register to vote by mail, the first time you vote you must do so in person, unless you are disabled, over 60 or temporarily residing overseas.
  • At designated voter registration agencies, such as welfare offices
  • Wherever voter registration groups have forms available. If you register to vote with a non-government official the first time you vote you must do so in person unless you are disabled, over 60 or temporarily residing overseas

Residence. You must register where you are a resident. For voting registration purposes you are a resident of the city or township shown on your driver's license. When you change your driver's license address this cancels your voting registration at your old address and the change of address form allows you to register to vote at the new address at the same time. If you don't use this change of address form, you will have to register again at your new address.

College Students. If you are a college student and use your family residence on your driver's license this is where your voting registration address will be. If you use a campus address on your driver's license this is where you will be able to register to vote.

Same day registration  should eliminate most these illegal voter registration purges and abuses. I hope.

by FLS 2008-12-05 03:22PM | 0 recs


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