Home > Applying Political Science > The Challenges of Voter Registration

The Challenges of Voter Registration

The Pew Center released a new report that is getting a fair amount of press today. The punch line is that a significant number of voter registrations are invalid. Quoting from the Pew’s site:

Voter registration systems are supposed to ensure access to voting while preventing fraud. Yet, America’s registration system is:

• Plagued by errors that prevented more than two million people from voting in 2008 and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

• Poorly designed for an increasingly mobile society in which one in eight Americans moved in 2008.

• Reliant on inefficient paper forms that often are submitted at the last minute by unregulated third-party groups.

• Unnecessarily expensive, costing taxpayers as much as 12 times more per voter than is required in Canada, where 93 percent of those eligible are registered.

A lot of these issues spring from the fact that control over American elections, for a variety of reasons, is at the state and local level (see Art. I, Sec. 2 of the Constitution). States set the criteria (aside from a handful of Constitutional protections enacted through amendments) for who gets to vote, when, how, and under what circumstances. Local elections officials then implement the state guidelines and actually administer the elections. When you register to vote, you do so with your local elections official (the County Registrar of Voters in California). When you vote, your local official prints the ballot and counts your votes after the election is over.

At the same time, we put a lot of responsibility for maintaining correct records on the individual voter. If you make a mistake on your registration, it could be invalidated. (California law, however, requires elections officials to try everything possible to render a registration valid.) If you move, it is your responsibility to register at your new address and notify your prior elections official that you no longer live at your prior address. If you move within a county, as I recently did, this is not that big of a deal–the info goes to the same place. If you move across state or county lines, however, it gets a little more complicated. If you mail in your registration or register with someone at a table outside a grocery store, it is your responsibility to make sure the registration goes through (and that it goes through correctly).

These are conscious choices that we have made, though. Americans don’t like the idea of national identification lists, so it’s not possible to rely on the federal government to make a national voter role. (The federal government tried to push states in this direction with the Help America Vote Act in 2002, but it has been met with limited success.)* Our historical heritage places a strong value on state and local control of policy, especially elections. We also like to vote on a lot of different things (in the last general election I had 36 separate choices on my ballot), which vary from locality to locality. As such, local control is necessary. Parties like being able to control/influence local election outcomes. There are many other similar reasons why voting looks like it does in the United States.

Solving the problems that the Pew Center highlights would take fundamentally altering who controls voting and registration in the United States. Personally, I don’t see a lot of hope for that happening.

* California, for example, does not expect it’s its state-wide voter database (which will be merged with the DMV’s database) to go live until at least 2015. It was supposed to be live in 2006.

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