A Simple Plan to Drastically Improve Voting, Stop Fraud, and Save Money
Bipartisan agreements seem possible on immigration and perhaps even on guns. Could election reform be next? Is there an opportunity to move past the partisan rancor of the voting wars and modernize America's out-of-date election system?
We all know it needs improvement. Long lines on Election Day are only the most visible symptom, as some voters from Florida to Virginia to Ohio waited up to seven hours to make their voice heard in last year's election. The culprit often turns out to be the old-fashioned, paper-based registration system used across the country.
According to the Pew Center on the States, approximately 51 million Americans are not registered to vote but should qualify to do so. One in eight registrations contain errors or are no longer valid. Nearly 2 million dead people appear on the voter rolls. In 2008, estimates are that at least 3 million voters who thought they were registered showed up at the polls, only to be turned away because of registration problems.
This echoes a study a decade ago, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former President Jimmy Carter, which found that America's registration rules are "among the world's most demanding" and are "one reason voter turnout in the United States is near the bottom of the developed world," and our voter lists are "riddled with inaccuracies."
I saw this firsthand as the general counsel to the McCain for President campaign in 2008. Endless disputes -- often in court -- over voter lists and registration rules helped nobody. We can do much more to bring our paper-based registration system into the modern era, curbing the potential for fraud while making sure everyone who is eligible can vote (but only those eligible can vote). There is always plenty of politics in politics. Still, we ought to be able to run elections without the system itself being the subject of constant battles between Republicans and Democrats. That makes only the lawyers happy.
In fact, there is a better way to run elections. If we bring our systems into the 21st century, especially voter registration, it would have significant positive impact for voters -- and also for the election officials who are charged with running our system.
Here's how Voter Registration Modernization would work. Government would give citizens the choice to be electronically registered to vote at the same time they do business with a government office, such as applying for a driver's license, Social Security, or state veterans' benefits. The voter would enter the information directly into the system electronically -- no paper to misread or lose. Nobody would be registered without consent, but, by using modern technology, far more would have the chance to do so than today.
Significantly, a voter's registration would move with them as they changed addresses (something one out of six American voters do every year in our mobile society). Portability is especially valuable for those serving in the military. Citizens would have an opportunity to correct their records on Election Day or sign up (with instant computerized checking to prevent fraud) if they are not already on the rolls. Computer technology, replacing piles of paper, makes all this possible.
This approach would offer something for everyone -- conservatives worried about fraud, liberals worried about access, and small-government advocates worried about cost. It would improve election security, by increasing the accuracy of the rolls and removing from the equation potentially fraudulent voter registrations gathered by partisans. At the same time, it would make it easier to get and stay registered, a key concern of voting-rights advocates. For fiscal conservatives like me, the good news is that it saves money, too.
Washington, D.C., of course, typically treats these issues with gridlock, deadlock, and partisanship. In the states, though, with much less rancor, public officials of both parties have started moving forward. Already, 23 states have introduced electronic transmissions into the voter-registration process at drivers' license bureaus. This saves personnel costs and prevents human error such as typos, illegible handwriting, and lost paper forms. Other reforms are moving elsewhere.
The most promising new opportunity for bipartisan reform is in Colorado. Over the past month, the Democrat-controlled legislature worked with the mostly-Republican Colorado County Clerks Association to draft the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act. This package includes key voter registration reforms that have worked around the country, such as portability, Election Day registration, and better tools to clean up the rolls. The county clerks have a particularly credible voice -- after all, they know what works, and does not, when reform ideas are actually put into effect. They know we can do better.
Other states, too, are moving forward with similar legislation. Last week the legislature began to consider voter registration reforms in Nevada. In Utah, a commission appointed by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman proposed modernization, and lawmakers have indicated interest in taking the next steps over the coming years.
Who knows? Maybe this approach will even have an impact in Washington. President Obama has appointed a bipartisan commission to study ways for states to improve voting. Modernization would be a powerful "best practice." Congress, too, can step forward, enacting minimum national standards on this and other voting issues.
Already we are seeing stirrings of bipartisan cooperation on divisive issues. The world's greatest democracy ought to be able to run free and fair elections without them devolving into a partisan mud fight or a series of bitter lawsuits. Let's make sure that voting reform becomes the next chance for a bipartisan breakthrough.
Trevor Potter served as general counsel to the 2000 and 2008 John McCain presidential campaigns and is a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission. He is the founding president and general counsel of theCampaign Legal Center. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Atlantic on April 18, 2013.