The United States could learn a lot by examining what other democracies do. It’s ironic, but today our former European colonizers seem to be more committed to political pluralism and participation than we are, and as a result they have much higher rates of voter turnout and registration, founded on the bedrock of multi-party democracy and diverse choices for voters. By comparison to many other established democracies, the US is pretty backward in a number of ways. Yet so many Americans, including political leaders and academic experts, have long considered America to be a paragon of representative democracy, part of our view of ourselves as the indispensable, exceptional nation.
I first realized the full extent of our democratic shortcomings during a research trip in western Europe during the late 1990s. I was there to interview political leaders and other noted experts about their proportional representation (PR) electoral systems, which was the foundation of their multi-party democracies. Being abroad and away from the US info bubble had its pleasant enjoyments, and among them was learning about all of these impressively well-designed institutions that buttressed European democracies -- not only PR but also public financing of campaigns, free media time for candidates, universal voter registration, national elections commissions, Question Time, children’s parliaments, weekend voting, enfranchised prisoners, randomly-selected citizens assemblies and more. I realized that Europeans actually care about and value democracy a lot more than most Americans, despite out paeans of praise in the abstract.
One common sense practice that I first learned about in my European sojourns, which had already been adopted by most of the world’s established democracies but not in “exceptional” America, is universal voter registration (UVR) (also known as automatic voter registration). With UVR, everyone who is eighteen or older and eligible to vote is registered automatically by the government. There are no forms to fill out or long lines to stand in; the citizen need do nothing. Instead, the government takes responsibility for registering all eligible voters. If America had universal voter registration, we would immediately add more than 60 million Americans to the voter rolls, about a quarter of eligible voters who are disproportionately minority, poor and young adults.
Not only that, automatic voter registration (AVR) would make our elections more robustly secure. That’s because our current approach invites registration fraud by rabid partisans. Voter registration drives usually occur in spurts right before major elections, and often are left up to partisan organizations which have incentive to try to manipulate the voter rolls by adding fictitious names or suppressing the opposition’s voters. In one election, an allegedly nonpartisan voter-registration firm in Nevada and Oregon was caught throwing out forms collected from voters who had registered as Democrats. It turned out that organization was a GOP front group. Republicans have accused Democratic urban machines of registering dead people to vote (though there is little actual evidence of that practice). The inevitable result of these kinds of partisan dirty tricks is that judges get involved in deciding close elections.
Under current practice, sudden surges in voter registration close to an election – especially on Election Day itself -- can more easily catch election officials unprepared, without sufficient equipment or the ability to accommodate late-registering voters. This has been one of the reasons for long lines at polling places in certain areas of the country, and can force many voters to use provisional ballots, too many of which never get counted. But when the government takes a proactive, ongoing role, registration occurs in an orderly manner on a steady rolling basis, which is easier for election administrators to manage and service all voters.
Implemented fully, universal voter registration would be one of the most important civil rights accomplishments since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This would be a powerful antidote to the many GOP attempts occurring right now to suppress voting rights in a number of states. With comprehensive databases and full registration, there is no longer a question about who is or is not registered—everyone is registered, no exceptions. It provides a coherent, easily trackable system that ensures all of us can vote, but none of us can vote more than once.
That was the conclusion that I and my FairVote colleague Rob Richie came to in the early 2000s. FairVote became the first organization in the US to start promoting universal/automatic voter registration. Way before organizations like the Brennan Center, Demos or Common Cause finally understood and started providing leadership on this important reform, we were out there beating the drum for automatically registering every single eligible voter in the United States. Why not? If most other established democracies could do it, we reasoned, why shouldn’t America? This was yet another area in which America’s “exceptionality” was hurting our democracy and holding back our nation.
Those early seeds that we planted gradually spread some roots. FairVote sponsored a conference that featured universal/automatic voter registration in the late 2000’s. In 2005 a bipartisan commission headed by former President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State James Baker recommended, among other things, that the US adopt universal voter registration. Slowly the logic of reform began to seep into the agendas of other organizations. Curiously though, neither the Democratic nor Republican parties strongly embraced the idea. Individual Democratic legislators started to catch on, realizing automatic voter registration was both the right thing to do and also would likely boost Democratic candidates, because a disproportionate number of those who would be automatically registered would be inclined to vote more for Democrats. But in general Democrats were obtusely slow in jumping on this train.
Finally, in 2016, the overwhelming common sense of this proposal struck its first bullseye. Oregon became the first state in the nation to implement AVR. Today, 22 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted a version of it. But in exceptional America’s exceptionally timid way, most of these states have delivered half a loaf by messing up the implementation mechanism (more on that in a moment). And 28 states still leave voter registration to private individuals and partisan organizations that try to manipulate the other sides’ supporters from registering. Also, it is impossible to escape notice that of the 22 states with AVR, only one state (Georgia) is a traditionally GOP state. And most of the remaining 28 non-AVR states are Republican states.
Some AVR methods are better than others
While a number of US states have taken steps to implement some degree of automatic voter registration, the implementation has often perpetuated unnecessary barriers. To understand the gold standard from bronze, it’s helpful to look at what other countries do.
In a number of countries like Germany, Netherlands, Canada, South Korea, Norway, Italy and others, people are added to a national registry from the moment they are born, and it is updated throughout their lives with key facts, including their place of residence. From there, it is a simple step to automatically enfranchise each individual when she/he reaches the age of voter eligibility.
In Sweden, the electoral register is maintained by the local tax office, under the jurisdiction of the National Tax Board. Each year citizens are able to make any appropriate changes to their listings, such as a change in residence. In the United Kingdom, I met with city council members from London who explained how the government mails to each household a form with their known registered voters listed on it. Then the household is asked to add to the form the names of anyone who is not registered to vote and mail it back. These new voters then are added to the rolls. By doing this low-tech method year after year, they add just about everybody, achieving near-universal voter registration. In the US, barely 70% of eligible voters are registered; in these other countries, they reach registered voter levels of 85 to 95% of their populations.
So the international norm is an orderly process of automatic voter registration of every citizen who reaches voting age, with governments taking a proactive role so that registration occurs on a continuous rolling basis. The United States is one of the few democracies where the government does not take much responsibility for registering its voters.
Among those 22 American states who are at least giving it a try, differences in effectiveness of implementation have emerged. These states all utilize the existing Department of Motor Vehicles database (and some add other databases such as social service agencies) to automatically add to the voter rolls any individual using these state services. That individual then has a choice to opt-out of registering. But one study by FiveThirtyEight found that Oregon and four other states use what is called a “back-end” system in which AVR registrants are given the choice to opt out not at the DMV, but in a notice mailed to them after the fact. Voters have 21 days to return the notice and cancel their registration. By contrast, the other 18 states use a “front-end” system in which people are asked immediately at the DMV, during the time of the transaction itself, if they want to opt out.
Many AVR supporters, myself included, prefer the back-end system because it appears to result in more registrations. For example, in Oregon’s back-end model 94 percent of eligible individuals who interact with the state DMV get registered to vote through AVR. By comparison in California, which relies on a front-end opt-out, only about 60 percent of eligible people who interact with the DMV get registered to vote through AVR. Oregon’s success saw its registered voters rise from 73 percent in 2014 to 90 percent in 2018.
A step in the right direction: pre-registration of high school students
While AVR progress was slow in the 2000’s, we at FairVote pioneered a related reform as a simple step in the right direction, called pre-registration of high school students. This approach, which now is being used by an increasing number of states, focuses on the population that typically has the lowest rates of registration: young adults.
In California, I led an effort to pass a state law that was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to lower the voter registration age to 17 (it was later further lowered to 16). With this law, a county could preregister all juniors in high school, which then would be entered into the voter database just like any other registration and activated once the pre-registrants turned 18. This strategic reform allows high schools to serve as a vehicle for engaging and registering students to vote, and plugging young people into the political process. For many of these students, once they leave high school they lose touch with any civic institution that can encourage them to register. If they aren’t on the voter rolls then candidates don’t contact them, so many of these students become lost to the political system for many years.
Over time, as all eighteen-year-olds are registered to vote, the US would move closer to 100 percent voter registration. Currently 15 states plus Washington DC permit preregistration beginning at 16 years old, including California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Utah and others. Four states (Maine, Nevada, New Jersey and West Virginia) permit preregistration starting at 17 years old. And five more states (Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri and Texas) allow preregistration several months before a person’s 18th birthday.
A compromise way forward: AVR in exchange for voter photo ID
In the midst of FairVote’s advocacy for universal/automatic voter registration in 2005, the bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission issued 87 recommendations to rectify the many flaws revealed by the electoral meltdown in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Two of the recommendations had the makings of a grand bargain between Democrats and Republicans: one called for universal voter registration, and the second called for creating a uniform photo identification method to match a voter to the voter roll. Given the extensive US history of attempts at voter suppression, the call for a voter ID was strongly opposed by many voting rights groups.
But what if, in exchange for requiring voter IDs, Republicans agreed to comprehensive universal voter registration? Would the bargain have been worth it? I think the answer to that is: yes.
Previously, the Carter-Ford commission in 2001 found that an estimated 6% to 10% of voting-age Americans (approximately 11 million to 19 million voters) did not possess a driver's license or a state-issued non-driver's photo ID, many of them poor, people of color and young people. So that was the prospective pool of voters that might have been negatively impacted by a voter ID requirement. In the meantime, universal voter registration would have added over 60 million voters to the registration rolls, most of them from those same impacted demographic groups. Many European democracies, which have much higher participation rates than the US, require voter IDs at the polls, and adequate resources are expended to ensure that all voters have a government-issued ID. A similar approach in the US on the part of the government and voter registration groups could have ensured that any impacts were minimized, even as the US would have vaulted itself forward towards 100% universal voter registration.
Critics at the time said that voter IDs would accomplish nothing because there is no evidence of any significant fraud, which is certainly true. But that’s the nature of compromise – sometimes you have to give something in order to get something. To me, this was a lost opportunity.
Maybe it’s not too late to strike that compromise. The key to being a great nation is picking out the right ways to be exceptional that make you a model for others to follow. When it comes to the institutions of democracy and representative government, the US is exceptional in too many of the worst ways. The torch of bold democratic innovation has passed from the United States, stuck in our antiquated 18th century ways, to many other democracies around the world.
I am certain that if the founders and framers were alive today, given how pragmatic they were in designing our original constitutional institutions which at the time were the cutting edge of democracy, they would be proponents of universal voter registration.