. Universal Voter Registration | Open Voting Consortium

Universal Voter Registration

I received a letter (dated APR 7) via US mail the other day from a radio station in Michigan on WPRR, Inc. letterhead, WPRR 1680, from Bob Goodrich. I responded with a letter via mail -- three pages. I was tempted to respond with a simple, "no," but I thought it was interesting. I had a couple of other thoughts after I sent the letter. I should have said "eliminate it or privatize it at the end of this sentence.
Once we identify a function for government to handle (and pay for) on an on-going basis, the impulse from the Left tends to be "federalize it." The impulse from the Right tends to be "eliminate it."
Also, the basic difference between "universal voter registration" and the idea of eliminating voter registration is the difference between centralization and decentralization of the databases.

Here is the text from the letter:

Mr. Dechert,

Is Open Voting Consortium currently working on the legislative steps required to enable "universal voter registration" for federal elections? I suggest by the federal government assigning each of us a specific federal voter identification number, the Republican fantasized voter fraud allegations would be appropriately dealt with.

Each state could duplicate federal voter registration by continuing to have local registration. Considering how Republicans have politicized the mechanics of both voter registration and voting, I'd expect most (particularly southern) states would continue local registration.

It would be a challenge for the Republican/Tea Party US Senators and Representatives to oppose our democratic ideal of: one citizen, one vote. With tens of millions (felons, college students) of federal voters who could not be state/local voters, hopefully the contrived disenfranchisement will trigger both an outcry and a change.

Kindest Regards, Robert (Bob) Goodrich

*************************** my response, sent via US Mail today
Dear Mr. Goodrich,

Thank you for your April 7th letter regarding universal voter registration. Regarding your question about Open Voting Consortium (OVC) working on this issue, the short answer is “no.” Generally, it is beyond the scope of what we've tried to tackle.

We haven't said much about this issue, although I have given it some thought. In October of 2003, I gave a talk at UC Santa Cruz in which I suggested that perhaps we should eliminate voter registration (this was no where near the main topics of discussion that day – just mentioned in passing). I noted then, as many others have said – and as I'm sure you'd agree – voter registration serves to reduce the pool of eligible voters (aka disenfranchising potential voters), not increase it. The original intent of maintaining the voter file may have been to reduce vote fraud, but there are other ways to ensure only an eligible voter can cast a ballot.

By elimination of voter registration, I meant something like what people mean by “universal voter registration.” In other words, if someone asks “how can I become a voter?” we answer, “you have to register to vote” since we have this system of voter registration. Instead, if we eliminated voter registration, the answer is, “you are automatically registered when eligible to vote.” If we eliminate voter registration, no one has to register to vote. For the most part, this is the same notion as universal voter registration, and I think it would be better.

North Dakota does not have voter registration. Most democracies around the world do not ask their citizens to register to vote. So, we know it can work.

However, like most aspects of the voting system we have in the US, simple solutions have a way of becoming enormously complex. Our voting system has evolved in a very convoluted way. I will outline just a few things that come to mind:

  • US Voting Systems tends to be locally owned and operated: In accordance with the Constitution and by tradition, mechanics of the voting system are left to state and local government. It is extraordinary for the federal government to get involved in how the system works – it does happen but only rarely; even then, the feds tend to stay out of day-to-day running of the system. Notable examples of the feds getting involved include the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. These extraordinary Acts came after glaring deficiencies in the system became national scandals. Sweeping reform like federalizing voter registration is an uphill battle to put it mildly. The level of scandal we see in the voting system may not cause universal voter registration to get high enough on the agendas of the powers that be. It is not impossible, but highly unlikely due to all the other issues this reform would touch upon.
  • Federal registration system for federal elections may not be adequate: Most of the cases of election fraud you'll find happen at the local level. Most election contests are local: ballots typically only have two or three federal contests at the most. People may wonder why go for universal registration if we're only addressing part of the problem.
  • Registration tied to political parties: This issue may be the biggest obstacle to making universal registration work. People usually register to vote and declare their political affiliation at the same time. This cannot be done automatically. It requires some input from the voter. I don't believe the government – local nor federal – should be in the business of keeping a record of citizens' political affiliation. But that's the way we do it. In order for universal registration to really work, we'd have to drop that in the universal database. There is no way maintainers of the universal registration database could keep up with all the changes people want to make with party affiliation, and the status of the many political parties varies from state-to-state and from time-to-time. “Ballot access rules” vary from state-to-state. This is all part of a screwed up system: consider that the government runs (and pays for) primary elections that are basically party business. What business is it of the government which candidate a given political party wants to run? In an ideal world, political parties keep track of who their members are, and the party would run their own primary elections to decide who they want to run in a general election. Government has stepped into the primary process presumably to impose some level of uniformity, fairness, and democracy onto the political parties. Maybe governments could perform this function with standards and regulations without actually running the elections themselves. Then we have anomalies to these principles – like the Iowa caucuses, widely seen as an undemocratic process. And in California, primary elections have been usurped, as the top vote getter in a political party may not get on the ballot in the general election while the opposing party may field an additional candidate if they get more votes in the primary (aka Prop 14, top-two primary).
  • Privacy issues: It is not simply a matter of “assigning each of us a specific federal voter identification number.” There has to be a way to prove the number is authentic and that it is used with the correct individual, all the while protecting the individual's confidentiality. Imagine for the moment that you had an accurate database of [automatically] registered voters (including 200+ million eligible to vote in US). In other words, you could pick any record on the list and feel certain that the address, name, and other information is all accurate. How could it be kept accurate? Consider that 2.4 million US citizens die each year. Eligibility may change due to factors other than death. For example, a person may become incompetent. Names change. What about the 40 million people who move every year? How can the database maintainer keep track of all this? While millions die every year, millions are also entering the voting age population, so they'll have to be added and tracked as they move around. If we're serious about having this new registration system help keep us at one-person-one-vote, the database needs to track voting history. That is, once a ballot is received from a voter, the database must be updated to reflect that. Otherwise, intentionally or by accident, we can have more than one ballot from a voter (sometimes voters will go to the polls to vote after voting by mail ... maybe they forgot or maybe they had good reason to believe the mail-in ballot was lost). Have you ever watched mail-in ballots coming in to be processed? They check the signature on the envelope against the signature they have on file for the voter. How easy will it be to make it so a picture of the voter's signature pops up at any of these thousands of counting centers – instantly and accurately for all 200+ million in the database? Who takes the call if something goes wrong? Building and maintaining this database would be a monumental task, which makes it very unlikely the fed gov would be willing to take it on. But if they did, what it boils down to is that they'd have to go to a completely different level of tracking movements of US citizens. It would probably necessitate a federal ID card. If the cards are to be accurate and up-to-date with name and address, how many would need to be created and mailed out each year? 100 Million or more? In my view, the only way the fed gov would take this on would be if someone there thought it would be a good idea for some other reason. For example, the Dept of Homeland Security might like the fed ID card. If the voter reg database was a pretty accurate record of US citizens, they'd probably want to use it for their own purposes. We've already seen how other uses of the voter reg database can have a negative impact disenfranchising voters. For example, voter reg databases are frequently used for jury selection. A lot of people don't register to vote because they feel they can't afford to serve on jury duty (or they just don't want to). Personally, I don't think the voter reg database should be used for anything else.
Once we identify a function for government to handle (and pay for) on an on-going basis, the impulse from the Left tends to be “federalize it.” The impulse from the Right tends to be “eliminate it.” This is somewhat semantical in many cases. We're not going to give up on keeping track of who can cast a ballot, but we don't necessarily need to require voters to fill out some form to maintain their eligibility to vote. In summary, universal voter registration (or the elimination of voter registration), could work.

Implementation would be a great challenge and potentially highly problematic due to the way the US voting system has evolved over the years. If I had a couple more lifetimes to spend on it, I might want to try. I would probably steer away from a central federal database: achieve universal registration with federal standards and local mechanisms. In an ideal world, poll workers don't need ID cards or a federal database because they know everyone that comes into the poll site.

Sincerely, Alan Dechert

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