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How to fix America’s voter registration system so more people can vote

Registering to vote is part of America’s two-step voting process. Does it have to be this way?

A sign reads “Wear your mask, keep 6 feet distance, BeWoke Vote” beside a line of cars at a drive-through voter registration event.
A volunteer helps people register to vote at an event organized by BeWoke Vote on September 19, 2020, in Compton, California.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Arizona Coalition for Change, a Black-led nonprofit organization, revamped their voter registration efforts for the Covid-19 pandemic. They went digital, texting and phone banking instead.

In recent weeks, they’ve hosted socially distanced pop-up voter events. They hosted a Black Panther drive-in movie that doubled as a voter registration drive. They partnered with other organizations to host a food drive, and as people picked up food in their cars, organizers would talk to drivers about registering to vote. Sena Mohammed, the coalition’s civic engagement director, told me they’d registered 30 people from that event alone.

These events were all part of the final push ahead of Arizona’s registration deadline, originally slated for Monday, October 5. Arizona Coalition for Change, along with other groups, sued for an extension, and a judge agreed Monday to push the date until October 23.

Registration efforts like these are the first part of the United States’ two-step voting process. Almost all Americans must register to vote before they can cast a ballot in any election. Some states have registration deadlines as early as about 30 days out from Election Day, a cutoff that has already begun in many places.

About 20 states, plus Washington, DC, have same-day voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This allows voters to register during the early voting period or on Election Day, then cast a ballot. (North Carolina is an exception, only allowing same-day registration during early voting.) But otherwise, if unregistered voters miss these registration deadlines, they effectively relinquish their ability to participate in the 2020 election, weeks before November 3.

But why does America even have a voter registration? The history is complicated. As Enrijeta Shino, an elections expert at the University of North Florida, put it to me, there are “two sides of the coin.”

On the good side, registration tells election officials who the eligible voters are, where they live, which voters should get which ballots. It’s supposed to help guard against fraud, preventing voters from voting twice, or in two different places, or for someone else.

But the system isn’t perfect; voters are sometimes purged for questionable reasons, and people move and die and the rolls go out of date.

And those in power have wielded voter registration to exclude people from the democratic process and create obstacles to voting, particularly for Black Americans and immigrant and minority communities.

That tension persists, though election experts say reforms can make voting registration much more accessible and equitable and fair. Same-day registration and automatic registration could bring more people into the system. Reforms, plus more resources, could also improve the administration of voter registration databases, which would make running elections more efficient and give voters more confidence in the integrity of the electoral system.

Reforms that make it easier to register, like many questions around voting, often encounter political resistance because of concerns around which party it might benefit or disadvantage. Meanwhile, registration efforts like the ones Arizona Coalition for Change has undertaken intensify ahead of big elections like 2020 to try to recruit new voters, and engage them so they follow through and vote.

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed how activists and community organizations have conducted voter outreach: Canvassing and door-knocking and tabling has become socially distanced, or moved online, or through text, or from the driver’s-side window of a car.

But just as the pandemic has forced America to grapple with how it votes, it is revealing how the very first step in that process could become more resilient, and inclusive, too.

The origins of the United States voter registration system

The United States’ voter registration system date to the 19th century — in some places, even before the Civil War — and was prompted by growing urbanization in America.

Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University and author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, told me that once a lot of people started living in cities, it was just a lot harder for political party leaders and poll workers to know who, exactly, was who.

“Contrast that to the idea of the small town and the people who go to vote show up and everybody knows who they are,” Keyssar said. “Once that ceases to be true to a significant degree, there is a felt need to prevent fraud by having a registration system.”

Another argument for voter registration was that it would bring out the best, most-informed citizens and help break up political party machines, both Democrat and Republican, that held power in sway in local governments.

Jacob Neiheisel, an associate professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, said the records are spotty because the news was so partisan at the time, but before registration became the norm, both parties lobbed accusations of repeat voters.

Complaints often involved outlandish-sounding allegations, like someone voting, then removing their hat, shaving their mustache, and getting back in line to vote again. They’d do it because they’d get a reward from the party machine, maybe a cushy patronage job, or a Thanksgiving turkey.

At least, those were the accusations repeated out loud. Beneath that ran the undercurrents of nativism and racism.

“People in these urban areas, particularly new arrivals, they don’t know anything about the political system,” Neiheisel said of the arguments in favor of registration. “But they can get in line and vote and be rewarded for doing so, thereby propping up these political machines that are corrupt.”

And a list of potential voters is also a really good way to control which people get to vote and which people don’t.

“Our commitment to excluding people from the vote is the reason why we insist that you enroll — so we can figure out who’s eligible and who’s not,” Francisco Pedraza, a political scientist at the University of California Riverside, told me.

“There’s a long list. We can’t let slaves vote. So that’s including every black person. You can’t let Native Americans vote, you can’t let women vote,” Pedraza added. “So we have [these] historical roots, and not allowing people to vote and the voter registration process serves that purpose.”

Forcing people to sign up to vote meant those in power could create impediments — proof of citizenship, literacy tests — to marginalize and disenfranchise groups that were, on paper, eligible to vote.

In northern cities, working-class people from immigrant communities were often the targets; in the South, it was Black Americans under Jim Crow. And the political machines that registration was supposed to slow down learned to adapt, using voter registration to help block new entrants to the system.

The current voter registration system in the US inherits from this. As with all things related to voting, different states have different rules. States have adopted and formalized voter registration systems at different times, and some just allowed people to register on Election Day when they came in to vote.

But, with some exceptions, US elections are a two-step process: first register, then vote. (North Dakota, the one state currently without a registration system, requires all eligible voters to show an ID.)

“It’s been deemed important to make it such that people would have to take a proactive step of registering to vote, and then, conditional on that and actually showing up to vote,” Michael Alvarez, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who studies elections and voter behavior, told me. “So we haven’t historically made registration automatic nor have we made the act of voting compulsory.”

Federal reforms throughout the 20th century tried to improve states’ voter registration systems by making it easier for people to register and to get materials about registration, and by creating guidelines for election officials on how to maintain voter rolls.

A good example is the National Voter Registration Act, passed in 1993. This law, also known as the “motor voter law,” is the reason you get asked about voter registration when you renew your driver’s license or state ID. The law allows voters to opt in to registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and other places where voters potentially interact with the government. It also required states to accept mail-in registration applications, among other measures.

The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002 after the chaos of the 2000 election, required all states to maintain statewide registration databases to help establish uniform standards.

Some states have built on these registration reforms (more on that below), while other state governments have been more resistant to change.

The result is that America’s voter registration system still leaves a lot of voters out, effectively excluding them from the democratic process. A 2017 estimate from the Pew Charitable Trust, based on US census data, calculated that more than 20 percent of eligible citizens were unregistered. This has an effect on turnout, which in the United States is far lower than some of its peer democracies.

As Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact at the League of Women Voters, pointed out, “registration rates are not equal across all demographics, and the reason for that is that it’s not easily accessible to all people.” White Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, are historically more likely to be registered, and more likely to vote, than other racial and ethnic groups.

Voter registration systems can go out of date as people relocate or get married and change their names or die. These errors can be costly for states, and they can diminish faith in the safety and legitimacy of the democratic system.

Taken together, for both voters and election officials, voter registration in America could stand some upgrades.

The US needs some way to track voters. But it can still be way easier for voters to register.

Election administrators need to know how many eligible voters are out there and to make sure voters are who they say they are. They need to estimate how many ballots to print and whom to send them to, and to make sure there are enough polling places and poll workers.

So the United States does need a system to track and verify eligible voters. But right now, the US voter registration system is largely one that requires Americans to opt in, meaning voters have to sign up or consent to be registered.

The antidote would be some form of automatic voter registration, where everyone who turns 18 or becomes a naturalized citizen is automatically enrolled. Everyone who fits these criteria would be issued an ID, and the government would be responsible for keeping that updated. This is similar to a model that lots of European democracies follow.

But this is the absolute ideal, experts told me — the “pie in the sky” idea, as Neiheisel put it — and it’s one that’s a lot harder to achieve in the United States. There is political (and cultural) resistance to the idea of a national database, along with some practical issues.

As Caltech’s Alvarez told me, states primarily run elections, which would mean any such database would probably operate state by state, so a move to federalize any sort of database would likely face resistance. And there also isn’t an obvious database that would, say, keep track of every eligible 17-and-a-half-year-old.

That doesn’t mean the US isn’t capable of establishing such as system, or of rethinking how it manages elections. But, as UC Riverside’s Pedraza told me, “the fundamental reason why we don’t have that goes back to our commitment to excluding some people.”

Pedraza said the critical thing would be to change the opt-in system to one where you opt out. Right now, people have to proactively join the electoral system; under an opt-out system, that would be the default, unless someone wanted to take steps to take themselves out of the system.

Some states are moving in this direction with automatic voter registration. Under this system, eligible voters are automatically registered (or have their registration information updated) when they interact with the DMV in their state, unless they specifically decline to do so.

In 2015, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration. All voters are enrolled and receive a notification in the mail that they’re registered; they can then send back that card if they want to opt out or choose to register with a specific political party.

According to the New York Times, the state registered 225,000 people that way, and 100,000 of those voted in the 2016 election — a turnout rate of 43 percent. Other states have since adopted similar programs; currently, 17 states and Washington, DC, have adopted some form of automatic voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Advocates say this kind of system also makes for cleaner voter rolls since information like changes of address is streamlined into the system. This system won’t catch everyone, of course, because not every citizen interacts with the DMV (though some states also do automatic registration when eligible voters interact with other government agencies, such as health or social service agencies).

Critics, on the other hand, say it invites fraud and creates more problems by bringing more bureaucratic government agencies into the system. California’s automatic voter registration faced a lot of errors when it rolled out in 2018, including thousands of duplicate records and a handful of non-citizens being registered, in part because they rushed out the program and the DMV’s technology was out of date.

Those problems got fixed, but it took time. New voting systems take time to implement and adjust to, as experts told me, so states shouldn’t rush out new registration tools without adequate testing and safeguards in place.

There are questions about how systems will work. For example, can voters opt out after the fact, as in Oregon, and can they do so while they’re at the DMV? If people don’t want to be registered or if they have concerns about their addresses being public on voter registrations, what if they accidentally get on the rolls?

But advocates still see automatic voter registration as an effective tool to capture as many voters as possible. “Given the way our infrastructure works,” Alvarez said of automatic voter registration, “it seems to be the best sort of practical solution to try to get people to easily be able to register to vote.”

Beyond automatic voter registration, another easy reform experts and advocates suggest is expanding same-day voter registration. Again, 21 states plus DC already have this, so it’s not exactly reinventing the system.

With same-day registration, eligible voters show up to polling places on Election Day (or during an early-voting period if one exists), register to vote then and there, and then vote right after. This is not really applicable for people who want to vote by mail, and a same-day system does require more resources, as states need even more clerks or poll workers to help with the process. But it gives citizens up until the very last moment to participate in the process.

“If states want to facilitate voting, make it more accessible and expand the electorate, I think that would be the ideal way to do it,” Shino, of the University of North Florida, said. Eligible citizens, she added, “should not be stopped from participating in the election because they miss that 30-day deadline of registration.”

An opt-out system like automatic voter registration along with same-day registration to catch everyone else who might be interested in voting would capture a lot of people the current system misses. “We know that those things do produce increases in the number of people who are registered and who show up,” Keyssar told me.

There are some other tweaks that could help, too. Expanding online voter registration also makes it easier for people to sign up. About 40 states have already embraced some form of this, where voters can submit their registration electronically, and then the state reviews the information and often confirms a signature with what’s already on file, usually at the DMV. Preregistration for voters who are 16 or 17 currently exists in many states, too, but advocates also see the potential to expand this type of program.

When it comes to registration and voting, experts told me, research backs up common sense: The easier it is and less costly it is, the more people will do it.

This is particularly important for registration because if people can’t move past the first step, they can’t get to the second: casting their vote. “If you are not able to navigate the process, to clear that obstacle, you cannot move on be a voter or participate in the electoral process or have your say in policymaking,” Shino said.

States need ways to better maintain voter rolls, too

America should certainly consider reforms that put less burden on voters. But a lot of those reforms would also put more responsibilities on states to invest in and maintain accurate voter rolls.

This is their job now, too. But problems exist. By federal law, election officials must maintain their voter rolls, cleaning out people who’ve moved or died. But voting-rights groups often accuse election officials — as happened in Georgia — of unfairly “purging” hundreds of voters from the rolls, thereby disenfranchising them.

Alvarez, whose team at Caltech works with some election officials in California on voter registration pilot programs, told me in that state you’ve got every county “simultaneously adding, subtracting, and changing records, especially as we get closer and closer to the election.”

He added that you also have lots of state agencies, most notably the DMV, accessing these records. That means a lot of different entry points to voter databases, with the data changing constantly. Error can creep in. “Duplicate records can be added, people’s records can be deleted incorrectly, and information in the records themselves can be changed,” Alvarez said.

Administrative errors in voting really do threaten voters’ perceptions of the integrity of the process. A dead person receiving a ballot is immediately seized upon as evidence of fraud; active voters mistakenly removed from rolls is seen as targeted disenfranchisement. These errors also waste resources and make for less efficient elections.

“There’s just very little evidence of any significant fraud when it comes to voter registration,” Alvarez told me. “But there is a lot of evidence of administrative errors and problems with the data itself.”

While there are things voters can do — such as checking to make sure they’re registered (definitely check your registration ASAP!) or using a provisional ballot — states can invest in technology and other data-matching processes to improve their own systems.

A good example is the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit founded in 2012 that helps states improve the quality of voter rolls and works to expand registration.

It works like this: States send voter registration data to ERIC, with privacy and security protections in place, and ERIC uses data-matching technology to identify duplicate and inaccurate voter records, including who has moved and who has died.

Thirty states plus Washington, DC, are currently members of ERIC, which means ERIC can detect who has moved within these states and between these states, improving the quality of information available to election officials.

Once the states get the data back, it’s up to election officials to reach out to voters and correct records.

“We give them the data as a tool, basically a starting point, and then they use their processes under state and federal law — and what’s possible within their voter registration system — to contact these voters and to initiate an update to the record,” Shane Hamlin, ERIC’s executive director, told me. He said ERIC had, before this year, identified nearly 15 million records in need of updates since 2012.

Membership in ERIC also requires states to do outreach to potential voters, proactively sending them a mailer or update to say that they are likely eligible to register to vote. Hamlin said voter outreach has reached 34 million potential voters since 2012, though it will likely be closer to 50 million after this election cycle.

Joining ERIC — or making any major changes to how states administer elections — requires changes to state law, which can sometimes be the hold-up to making quick changes to voter registration systems. But the higher quality the voter databases, the better it is for both election officials and voters themselves.

The state of voter registration in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic

“Have mask, have hand sanitizer, will travel,” is Caprecia Miller’s motto. Miller is a voting squad captain in Virginia with When We All Vote, a nonprofit that works to increase voter participation, and she has transformed herself into a one-woman voter registration machine.

Miller said she felt broken and angry after the police killing of George Floyd, and she sought a way to act, which is how she discovered When We All Vote.

She goes to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, and helps people register there. One Saturday, a man from Providence, Rhode Island, stopped her in the plaza and asked for help registering some seniors back in his state. She said she would try to find someone else to help, but when she couldn’t, she drove up there and did it herself. Mask, hand sanitizer, will travel.

But mostly Miller works in northern Virginia and Washington, DC. She brings voter registration forms to homeless shelters. She interrupts neighborhood basketball games, telling players through the wire fence to register after they finish their last shot. She’s starting to be known as the “vote lady.”

“I have found myself registering so many new voters, first-time voters ever in their life, across all age demographics, which is really refreshing,” she told me. “I am finding a way, when I do run across individuals that, you know, they don’t believe their vote will count — that it won’t matter. I’m making sure that I’m being an active listener. I’m meeting individuals where they are, allowing them to share their experiences.”

Virginia’s final date to register is October 13, a deadline that Miller is working toward, like so many other organizations and community groups that are trying to register eligible voters. This is how it works every year, because this kind of outreach and engagement to newly eligible voters is still the best way to help people enter the first step of America’s voting system.

“It’s the individual invitation into our democracy that gets underrepresented individuals into the electoral process,” Senecal, at the League of Women Voters, said. “The fact that we have invited them in, the fact that we have said thatyou are important, and we want you to be a part of this process’ when they so often are left out of so many other governmental institutions.”

“The simple act of asking them to be a part of it is a critical part in making sure that voter registration is equitable and that we are able to close the registration grant gaps across the different demographics,” Senecal added.

But that invitation has been harder to extend during the pandemic, which has made in-person voter drives much harder to organize safely. Other ways voters are registered — such as at the DMV — have also been affected, as government agencies shut down and people stayed home.

The Center for Election Innovation and Research compared voter registration data from 2016 to 2020 and found that six states — Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia — had recorded lower voter registration rates in May 2020 than they had in May 2016. And while that number began to rebound this summer, the cumulative number of new registrants through July remained down — a total of 329,756 fewer voters combined in all of those places.

The Arizona Coalition for Change adapted to online organizing in the wake of the pandemic, using texting and phone-banking instead. Those they reached out to would send back photos posing with their voter registration forms, confirming from a distance so the group could follow up with voters to make sure they vote and verify with the county recorder that these new voters are on the rolls.

And while there were some benefits — young voters are especially comfortable with texting and social media — Mohammed told me, as of last week, she estimates they’ve registered about 6,000 new voters, well shy of their 25,000 goal. In the past, they’ve had great success going to high schools and doing in-person registration for seniors. With schools shut down, Zoom registration drives and drive-thru events make up some, but not all, of the shortfall.

Still, activists like Miller and other organizations are trying to do what they can, with hand sanitizer and masks and appropriate social distance. Across the country, in small communities and big cities, at libraries, swim clubs, and parks, outside of mosques and churches, a voter here and a voter there is registering, maybe for the first time.

But registration is not a guarantee that someone will vote, and now that these registration deadlines are approaching, groups are gearing up to make sure people follow through with the second step of the process and actually cast a ballot.

Arizona Coalition for Change is making sure people are voting early and know how to vote by mail. Caprecia Miller, once the registration deadline passes, will take her hand sanitizer and her mask and remind people that early voting is happening in Virginia now through October 31.

“I want to make sure that I know that I’ve done everything that I could do to make sure individuals exercise the right to vote,” she said. “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, we could have done a little bit more.’”

Correction, October 7: This article previously misstated ERIC’s findings on voting records. The organization identified about 15 million records in need of updates from 2012 to 2019, not 15 million duplicate records.

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