Bipartisan Support for Bringing Voter Registration to the 21st Century Underway

Not too long ago, the means of accessing and staying on the voter registration rolls was a highly controversial issue that often got lost in a partisan shuffle. However, after more than two million voters were unable to vote due to problems with their voter registration last year, policymakers and advocates on both sides are finally listening. Whether it is extravagant efforts to automate voter registration on the national level or revamping state voting systems to utilize citizens' access to the Internet, improving voter registration is a glimmering goal in 2009 that brings promise for restoring the democratic process in the years to come.

"We have a voter registration system that doesn't really do what it ought to do," said former general counsel for Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, Trevor Potter, in a National Public Radio report last week. "If we have a law that says you have to be registered in order to vote, then why wouldn't the government do something to put you on the list if you're entitled to be there, and to make sure the list is accurate?" Potter says.

“For now, there's a lot of bipartisan support to do something,” NPR’s Pam Fessler reports. “Democrats think a more automatic system would make it easier to get people registered. And Republicans think it would reduce the potential for fraud.”

Potter, along with Senator John Kerry’s general counsel for his 2004 presidential campaign, Marc Elias, and “a number of election officials, experts and interest groups” have assembled the Committee to Modernize Voter Registration, an effort to “upgrade our system and bring voter registration into the 21st century,” according to the group’s Web site.

The group advocates for automatically enrolling and maintaining current information of eligible voters through government databases. However, despite these preliminary efforts to “inform and discuss” modernizing voter registration, some say it could take years to realize.

"How do we make sure the system is secured and that people can feel confident that their information won't be in some way lost, stolen or otherwise used?" Thad Hall, an election technology expert with the University of Utah, told NPR.

In the meantime, other voter registration improvement efforts are underway on the federal and state levels. Providing for same-day voter registration in Federal elections, companion bills, HR 3957 and S 1986 were introduced in the House and Senate in late October. Both bills are sponsored by legislators from states that have experienced decades of above-average voter registration and turnout, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“Minnesota routinely leads the nation in voter turnout – usually over 70 percent. …” said House bill sponsor, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), according to the Minnesota Independent. “Enacting a National Election Day Registration law would do for the nation what same day registration has done for our State – give a voice to all who want to vote.”

In support of a similar measure considered in the District of Columbia last week, Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)blogged about the benefits of Same Day Registration that go beyond getting voters on the rolls – it also helps legitimate voters get counted.

“In addition to increasing voter participation, SDR reduces provisional ballots. When voters who believe they are registered show up at the polls only to find out they are not listed on the voter rolls, they are usually provided a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are rejected and discarded if it turns out the voter was not properly registered. SDR will allow voters to register on the spot, if they are qualified to vote.”

Feingold’s bill is currently in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

On the state level, voter registration overhaul appears to be gaining some headway. Ohio House Bill 260 was heard Tuesday with a number of updates to benefit Ohioans. The bill would not only follow recent state legislative trends to provide online voter registration, but also allow voters to “be automatically given the opportunity to register when they deal with agencies such as the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services,” according to the Associated Press. “Ohioans are already given the opportunity to register when they get a driver's license.”

Whether through “modernization,” same-day-registration, or simply providing more voter registration opportunities for voters, bringing America’s voter registration system to the 21st century – that is, making it accessible to all voters - is key in strengthening democracy.

Tags: election day registration, election legislation, election reform, Ohio, voter registration, Voting Rights (all tags)

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