Last week, the always insightful Rick Hasen of the Election Law blog penned a piece in
Salon Slate regarding the need for a simplified, fair, and universal voter registration system. The entire piece is a must read, but this part was particularly pragmatic, and it reiterates ideas that many of us in the election reform community have been advocating for a while:
The solution is to take the job of voter registration for federal elections out of the hands of third parties (and out of the hands of the counties and states) and give it to the federal government. The Constitution grants Congress wide authority over congressional elections. The next president should propose legislation to have the Census Bureau, when it conducts the 2010 census, also register all eligible voters who wish to be registered for future federal elections. High-school seniors could be signed up as well so that they would be registered to vote on their 18th birthday. When people submit change-of-address cards to the post office, election officials would also change their registration information.
This change would eliminate most voter registration fraud. Government employees would not have an incentive to pad registration lists with additional people in order to keep their jobs. The system would also eliminate the need for matches between state databases, a problem that has proved so troublesome because of the bad quality of the data. The federal government could assign each person a unique voter-identification number, which would remain the same regardless of where the voter moves. The unique ID would prevent people from voting in two jurisdictions, such as snowbirds who might be tempted to vote in Florida and New York. States would not have to use the system for their state and local elections, but most would choose to do so because of the cost savings.
In the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Rob Richie and Adam Fogel of FairVote make a similar point (emphasis added):
Blaming ACORN for our voter registration system is a classic failure of missing the forest for the trees. Amidst accusations of ACORN putting our democracy in jeopardy, few are asking why private groups are even in the business of voter registration drives. The answer is that the United States is one of the few democracies where the federal government doesn’t assume responsibility for establishing full and accurate voter rolls — and it just isn’t working.
[...] Nearly a third of eligible voters aren’t registered to vote and our turnout rates are among the lowest in the world. [...] The problem is our "opt-in," self-initiated voter registration system. Right now the onus is on citizens to update their information, ensure correct spelling and cancel old registrations when they move. [...]
Implementing a few common sense reforms would go a long way in solving our voter registration problems and lessen the necessity of groups seeking to register so many new voters every four years.
One example is seeking to register every citizen before they reach voting age by following the lead of Hawaii and Florida in allowing 16-year-olds to register to vote, with their names automatically added to the voter rolls when they reach 18. This change would ideally be twinned with systematic registration of young people in high schools and at driver’s license agencies and "voter’s ed" classes on the mechanics of participation in communities. Other sensible proposals include Election Day registration and moving to making voter registration permanent through automatic updates of registration with changes of address.
More broadly, it’s time for the government to take on the responsibility of establishing full and accurate voter rolls. This goal is not rocket science — it’s the international norm and the very best way to prevent voter registration fraud and our low rates of voter registration.
This is the supreme blowback resulting from the GOP's ACORN smear. By so vigorously highlighting the very real problems with third-party registration model, the GOP has unwittingly provided the best argument in favor of having the government step in and facilitate a universal registration system. And so, the irony is that in trying to suppress voter turnout by calling even valid registrations into question, Republicans have opened the door to a long-overdue discussion on how best to reform our inherently flawed voter registration system in order to ensure that every American who has the right to vote may do so without redtape barriers.
Universal registration is one of the top items on what we're can call a Voter's Bill of Rights that should be embraced by Congress after the election (more on this in the weeks to follow, but it would include, among other things, ballot simplification, auditable paper trails, etc.).