US & World

Political foes team up to improve voter registration

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

Advisers from recent Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns have joined together to try to come up with a better way to register voters. In the future, for example, a voter's record could be automatically updated when he or she moves.

In this lull between major elections, advisers from recent Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns have joined together to try to come up with a better way to register voters.

An estimated 2 million Americans were unable to vote in last year's elections because of problems with their registration. Others didn't even bother to register because it was too difficult.

"We have a voter registration system that doesn't really do what it ought to do," says Trevor Potter, former general counsel for Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

Potter says many eligible voters don't end up on the rolls, often through no fault of their own. He — and a lot of other election experts — think that doesn't make sense. Why, he asks, is it the job of voters to get their names on the government's list?

So Potter has been meeting with Marc Elias, general counsel for Massachusetts Democrat Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign — and with a number of election officials, experts and interest groups — to see if they can't come up with a better system.

A New Way

In Delaware, a new system suggests one possible way forward. At the Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles, the system registers voters almost automatically when residents apply for new driver's licenses or update their old ones.

Elaine Manlove, Delaware's commissioner of elections, demonstrates the system. "It has my phone number, it has my date of birth, and my party change," she notes.

The system is very easy to use. Manlove signs her name on an electronic pad to affirm that the information is correct, using a stylus just like at the department store. A completed voter registration form appears on the screen. A DMV clerk hits "enter" to input the data."And it's done — it's on its way to elections," Manlove says. "And then the elections office in Sussex is getting this as we speak, and they can process it."

It's a far cry from before, when election officials sometimes waited days for piles of paper to arrive from the DMV and then entered the information into a computer — and that's if people even bothered to fill out the forms in the first place. Now it's a quick click to either register or, if people prefer, decline to do so.

But Delaware's system is pretty much on the cutting edge. Many states still use older systems that rely more heavily on registration drives by outside groups, such as the community organizing group ACORN. These systems are more prone to error, duplication and even fraud.

"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.

He says the government already knows when someone turns 18 or becomes a naturalized citizen or moves and updates an address through the U.S. Postal Service.

Bipartisan Support

Doug Chapin with the Pew Center on the States says one idea for overhauling voter registrations is to have an individual's voter record be more portable and be automatically updated when he or she moves. Chapin says that could eliminate a lot of confusion at the polls.

"Election offices are swamped with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of registration applications. And then they have a very small amount of time to turn those piles of paper into voter rolls, all the while checking eligibility, putting voters in the right precinct," Chapin says.

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

Thad Hall, an election technology expert with the University of Utah, says that, as always, the devil is in the details.

"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?" Hall says.

There are a lot of issues still to be worked out.

Hall and others think it could take years for something to happen, which is why they're glad people have begun talking about it now — away from the heat of the next big campaign.