A call to overhaul nation’s voter registration process

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Savage is a Times staff writer.

The nation’s much-maligned election system passed a major test last week when more than 132 million Americans -- a record -- cast ballots with few reports of problems.

But now, election reformers are calling for a move toward a “universal voter registration” system, in which the government takes the lead in ensuring that all eligible citizens are registered to vote.

“This means the registration process would no longer serve as a barrier to the right to vote,” said Wendy R. Weiser, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “It would also eliminate the ACORN issue and all the gaming of the system.”


In the United States, unlike other major democracies, citizens, not the government, are responsible for seeing to it that they are registered to vote. And when people move, even if across town, they must update their registration, usually with a local office.

In 2004, more than 1 in 4 American adults was not on the voter rolls. Since then, private organizations such as the League of Women Voters and activist groups like ACORN, an advocate for people in low-income communities, launched major voter registration drives. These groups do not put voters on the rolls. They simply turn in applications from people who sign forms saying they want to register.

But ACORN, among others, was sharply criticized for submitting a huge number of registration cards with questionable information and from people already registered.

“All across America, our people wasted untold hours dealing with duplicate registrations,” said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Assn. of Election Officials.

Many more Americans encounter a more mundane problem -- failing to update their registration after they move.

“The current system is simply not designed for a mobile society,” the Brennan Center for Justice said in its report on universal voter registration.


Under its proposal, states could update their computerized voter rolls when residents move from one city to another. And they could add new voters who move to the state and apply for driver’s licenses.

Some proposals would automatically add teens to the voter rolls when they turn 18. Under some plans, Congress could create a national voter registration roll, modeled after the Social Security database. Others say states should take the lead in expanding and improving their voter rolls.

“Registration reform will be the big issue going forward,” said Doug Chapin of “All this last-minute litigation has heightened the concern that we need to consider a universal or automatic voter registration system.”

Tuesday’s voting followed weeks of lawsuits and skirmishes over the voter rolls, when Republicans voiced fears of massive fraud and Democrats were worried about the possible purging of tens of thousands of voters.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has said she plans to introduce legislation to move toward automatic voter registration, and officials in Minnesota, Oregon and New York have expressed interest in making it a state law, said officials at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Some election officials question whether a national system would gain support.

“We will need to think hard about this,” said Lewis, whose group represents state and county election officials. “It’s true that in most developed democracies the government takes on this role and it’s a top-down system. But ours has been a bottom-up system because our founders were suspicious of a centralized election authority.”


Several watchdog groups that sounded alarms in recent weeks say this year’s focus on the voter rolls helped resolve problems before election day. In Colorado and Michigan, judges acting in response to lawsuits restored thousands of voters to the rolls days before the election. In Florida, county officials agreed to work out problems of voters whose driver’s licenses did not match data on the registration rolls.

“Because a lot of work was done on the front end, we were able to avoid major meltdowns,” said Tova Wang, a voting rights expert at Common Cause.

This year, for the first time, a sizable percentage of voters cast their ballots before election day. Most states have adopted some form of early voting, and election reformers say more should do so.

“I think we will see a lot of discussion about expanding the early voting,” Chapin said.

Some experts predicted a push to enact a federal law that would make it a crime to send false and deceptive information about voting, either through the mail or via the Internet.

“It’s amazing how many e-mails with deliberate misleading information were sent out this year,” Wang said. Legislation to ban the practice was introduced in the last Congress, but it did not become law. She said it stood a good chance next year.

One reason for her optimism: A key sponsor of last year’s bill to outlaw deceptive election fliers was Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.