by Mike Connery, Thu May 14, 2009 at 04:10:28 PM EDT
I've written multiple times, on many different blogs, about the need for fundamental voter registration reform. Normally I make that case on behalf of the young voter/voter registration community. The most recent data from CIRCLE put young voter turnout in 2008 at 51.1% - one of the highest rates ever, yet still lower than any other portion the electorate. But we also know that upwards of 80% of all registered young voters actually make it to the polls to cast their ballot - a turnout rate not much lower than that of the rest of the electorate.
The conclusion is simple, and one that we are all familiar with: voter registration is a barrier to participation, and reforming it could well be the single most effective means of creating lasting gains in voter turnout rates, especially among young people. Such reforms are in the works, and the proposed changes usually include some form of automatic registration and/or election day registration failsafes.
One of the biggest hurdles in achieving such reform is convincing the various local Secretaries of State that such reforms are in their interest and, rather than increase their burdens, will make their jobs easier. Secretaries of State will wield enormous influence over the outcome of a voter registration reform debate. Without their support, it will be difficult to convince Senators or Congressmen to sign on to any voter reform legislation. That's why a new report by the US PIRG Education Fund on the cost effectiveness of voter registration reform is so important: Saving Dollars, Saving Democracy - Cost Savings for Local Elections Officials Through Voter Registration Modernization.
In a survey of 100 counties, the report found that:
- Over $33,467,910.00 of public money was spent on simple registration and error-correction issues in 2008.
- That equals $86,977.00 of the elections budgets in counties with populations under 50,000.
- The average office in counties with 50,000 to 200,000 people spent $248,091.00.
- The average county elections office in jurisdictions of 200,000 to around one million people spent $1,079,610.00.
- Some of the largest counties in our survey spent far more than this average, for example St Louis County, with a population of 995,118, conservatively spent over 3 million dollars on registration implementation and issues in the 2008 cycle.
In addition to the monetary costs of the current system, the report also outlines other inefficiencies that current boards of election routinely face, and which could be overcome through sensible reform of the registration process:
- Missing Information: inaccurate, incomplete, duplicated, or illegible forms;
- Citizen Confusion: a lack of clarity for any particular registrant concerning citizenship status;
- Overtime/Staffing: there are many problems and costs associated with hiring part-time staff or paying overtime to data-entry floods of forms in time for Election Day;
- Acknowledgment Cards: some states require a card be sent to registrants to confirm registration details;
- Reaching voters in rural areas: states face challenges when reaching out to register eligible citizens across a geographically complex rural jurisdiction; and
- Provisional ballot printings, mailings, and outreach: once a registrant is not accurately entered, HAVA requires that they be allowed to cast a day-of-election provisional ballot. States must provide said ballot, and then in order for it to count, states need to follow up with the voter and state to determine their registration status.
The report makes a number of recommendations on what effective, efficient reform would look like:
- A federal mandate should be passed to require affirmative and automatic registration. Specified and privacy-protected data transfers and information sharing should occur from federal and state databases to the state voter rolls as a means of continuously updating the list.
By eliminating the data entry and duplicate and error verification follow-up responsibilities of local officials, there will be large cost savings at the county level.
- Federal funding should be provided to make it possible for states to implement this mandate.
- States should also use specified private database transfers or information sharing to keep citizens on the rolls permanently at their most up-to-date address.
- States should perform same-day balloting as a catch-all for citizens.
The full report offers regional, state, and municipal data on all of the inefficiencies outlined above. At some point in the next few years, we are likely to face a fight in congress over voter registration reform. Ground zero in that fight will be convincing local Secretaries of State that they should be in favor of reform rather than the status quo. This new report by US PIRG Education Fund is an invaluable information for those looking to construct effective arguments in favor of reform.