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Hurdles to voter registration limit democracy

Camille Crittenden, Executive Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute | September 24, 2012

Recent efforts to purge voter rolls, impose new restrictions on voter registration drives, and require new levels of identification in order to cast a ballot threaten to limit participation in the upcoming election, especially among low-income and minority voters. One study estimated that as many as 700,000 minority voters under age 30 may be unable to vote due to these new laws. In states predicting tight races—Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania—this barrier could be decisive to the outcome. Yet, even without these new challenges, arcane voter registration procedures in the United States already provide ample barriers to this fundamental right.

At 68% of eligible voters, the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of voter registration among modern democracies. Great Britain, Sweden, Mexico, Peru and others boast registration rates of 95% or more. Unlike in these and many other countries, U.S. citizens must take pro-active responsibility to register themselves. Registration is tied to one’s physical residence, which effectively disenfranchises the homeless and others who are itinerant for work or education. Although federal legislation provides some protections, a patchwork of regulations remains at the state level regarding eligibility, the time required to register before an election, as well as other parameters like early voting or vote-by-mail.

How can technology and new media improve access to the democratic process? California took a step in the right direction last week when it launched a site to allow online voter registration for those already registered with the DMV. More than 3,000 voters had registered on the site within the first 12 hours. A handful of other states offer online registration, and a few nonprofit groups provide innovative apps to ease the process. Turbo Vote allows users to enter basic information and sends a pre-populated form to the home address, and Rock the Vote also has an easy online registration tool. For those without ready Internet access, other countries may offer models for innovation: Pakistan used an SMS service earlier this year to verify 85 million votes cast, and South Africa and the UK allow voters to confirm their registration online or by SMS.

Despite the convenience of technology, the most effective practices to register new voters still require the personal touch of one-on-one conversation. Unfortunately, these campaigns are also the most labor-intensive and expensive, requiring about 15 minutes each and $5-$7 per voter. Third-party organizations—whether nonprofit, nonpartisan groups like Rock the Vote or the League of Women Voters, or political parties and their volunteers or paid brigades—are stepping into this role. But they lack the resources to meet the need.

In honor of National Voter Registration Day (September 25)—or any time before October 22 if you live in California—encourage eligible voters in your social network to register or donate to organizations doing this work to strengthen our democracy. According to the Fifteenth Amendment, “the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied.” Registration is the first step.