Underfunding of voter registration: a guarantee that 25 percent or more of Americans won’t participate

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Sept. 13, 2012 — While recent “voter ID” measures have received considerable press attention, and though structural barriers to voter registration have long been noted, less attention has been paid to why voter registration under the existing patchwork of state-based registration systems invariably falls so far short of the number of eligible voters.  It’s an important question: according to the Census Bureau, even during presidential election years, at least a quarter of the eligible electorate has been unregistered in the period from 1980 through 2008.

Voter registration efforts, of course, do exist, including those conducted by the national non-partisan organizations Project Vote, Rock the Vote, and the League of Women Voters. Remapping Debate spoke with representatives from these and other organizations, as well as with observers of the registration process, to find out if current registration efforts match the need, and, if not, why not.

It turns out to be abundantly clear that need far exceeds current efforts. Especially because many registration drives necessarily rely on one-to-one, in-person contacts, the process of converting potential registrants into actual registrants is highly labor-intensive. And voter registration organizations get nowhere close to the funding they require to fundamentally alter the size of the unregistered population.


Not making it easy

U.S. lags in voter registration

Many nations have higher voter registration rates than the United States. The following countries are those identified in “Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World,” a 2009 report from the Brennan Center for Justice.

Each country’s primary registration method is one of four types. In a civil registries (CR) system, authorities cross-reference existing government lists to add eligible citizens to the voter rolls automatically. In a data-sharing (DS) system, a variety of public agencies provide updated information on citizens to election administrators. An enumerations (E) system involves election administrators affirmatively reaching out to eligible voters by mail or in person to provide registration materials. Voter-initiated (VI) registration describes the U.S. system: voters are responsible for getting themselves registered and re-registered. 

Comparative Voter Registration
Countries Registration Method Registration Rates Year Data Collected
Argentina* CR 100% 2007
Belize VI 97% 2008
Great Britain E 97% 2008
Mexico VI 95% 2005
Peru* CR 95% 2006
Sweden CR 95% 2006
Belgium* CR 94% 2007
Indonesia E 94% 2004
Austria CR 93% 2008
Canada DS 93% 2008
Germany CR 93% 2005
Australia* DS 92% 2008
Burundi VI 91% 2005
France DS 91% 2007
South Africa VI 77% 2009
Bahamas VI 75% 2007
United States VI 68% 2006
*Indicates mandatory voting.

Rob Richie, the executive director of FairVote, a think tank focused on how to improve elections and democratic involvement, explained that the current system of voter registration in the U.S. is defined principally by the fact that it is an “‘opt-in’ approach as opposed to an ‘opt-out’ approach.” That is, in contrast to many other comparable democracies, where citizens are registered and stay registered automatically unless they actively decide not to participate (an “opt-out” system), U.S. citizens must affirmatively and individually register (“opt-in”) before being allowed to participate.

It is true, as Donald P. Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University explained, that “it is much easier to register now than it was 30 years ago,” in large measure because of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, commonly known as the “Motor Voter Act.” The legislation, required state offices, like departments of motor vehicles and social service agencies, to offer citizens the opportunity to register when they interact with the agencies for other services.

Nevertheless, as Tova Andrea Wang, senior democracy fellow at the progressive policy research and advocacy group, Demos, told Remapping Debate, “I don’t think that the number of people who are not registered to vote because of structural obstacles is small.” Most states, she pointed out, require registration well in advance of elections, meaning that just as campaigns enter their final weeks, newly-interested voters cannot register.

Though some states have implemented registration reforms like online registration, election-day (“same-day”) registration, and, starting this year in Washington State, registration via Facebook, these states are far outnumbered by those who haven’t lowered barriers to registration: 36 states still do not permit online registration, and 42 do not permit same-day registration.

And other states are actively making registration — and registration drives — more difficult. According to a report released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at the New York University School of Law, “In 2011 and 2012 alone, bills were introduced in at least eight states — California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina — to restrict registration drives.”


Voter registration need not matched by the effort

So what to do until more citizen-friendly systems are in place? Tova Andrea Wang, of Demos, said that non-partisan voter registration groups “are indispensible…so as long as we have a system in the United States where it is…on the citizen to proactively register to vote and the government really does very little to facilitate that process, groups such as those are literally indispensible to making our democracy work.”

During the 2004 election cycle, for example, of the 49.6 million registration applications submitted across the country, fully 20 percent — from 10 million citizens — came via non-profit voter registration efforts.

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