California's strength flows from a willingness to innovate and improve upon the American experiment in democracy. Recent elections underscore the importance of revamping the way we register citizens to vote, with the twin goals of registering all eligible voters and decreasing opportunities for voter fraud. Voter rolls should be complete and clean.
Currently, there are two widespread failures. First, our voter rolls are not complete enough, with nearly a third of eligible voters -- about 60 million Americans -- not registered to vote. In California 6.7 million (30 percent) eligible adults are unregistered to vote, a lower percentage than in 2001. Young people are even more negatively impacted than other demographics. In 2004, only 54.4% of Californians 18-24 years old who are eligible to vote were registered and only 44.9% of these eligible voters actually voted (each of these figures is approximately 10 percentage points below the national averages). In 2002, 39.2% of eligible voters from this group were registered and only 18.8% of eligible voters turned out to vote.
Second, our voter rolls are not clean enough, which leads to administrative confusion and uncertainty about voter fraud. Under current laws and practices, we naturally see major voter registration drives during election years. The result is a surge of registrations right before an election, leading to long lines at polling places, voters not receiving information about where to vote, and turmoil over provisional and absentee ballots. It all-too-easily leads to potential partisan fraud, such as a Republican-linked voter registration firm in Nevada and Oregon that in 2004 threw out forms collected from voters registering as Democrats; and accusations of Democratic urban machines registering dead people to vote in cities and other party strongholds. Other charges have included people voting in two states and places like Alaska having more registered voters than adults. California elections also have not been immune to charges of voter fraud.
The lack of confidence over the "cleanness" of our voter rolls undermines the integrity of our elections. Having so many unregistered citizens hurts voter turnout and causes great problems in election administration. It's time to establish CLEAN and COMPLETE voter rolls to not only enhance every American's ability to vote but also to preserve the integrity of elections and keep close elections in the hands of voters rather than judges.
Current Law and Practices
State and federal laws establishes three conditions for voting registration: an individual must be a citizen of the United States; a resident of a particular state of the District of Colombia; and at least 18 years of age before the next election. Eligible voters register by signing a legal affidavit swearing that she or he is a citizen and has reached the required age. Finally, since passage of the federal Help America Vote Act in 2002, first-time voters in federal elections must show proof of residency (photo ID, current utility bill, bank statement or government document) either at the time of registration or when they show up at the polls for the first time. Registration forms are available at government web sites and offices. In addition, many voters are provided registration forms by political parties or advocacy groups. This all-voluntary basis for voter registration has proven to be ineffective at producing complete or clean voter rolls.
The Solution: Universal Voter Registration
Pointing fingers and name-calling won't fix the problem. The way forward is to set a goal of 100 percent voter registration -- universal voter registration -- by establishing registration as a mutual responsibility of citizens and their government that is conducted through an automatic registration process. It's the best way to bring together conservatives concerned about fraud in elections and liberals concerned about low voter registration. We need a coherent system that ensures all of us can vote, but none of us can vote more than once.
The United States, including California, is one of the few democracies where the government does not take responsibility for registering its voters. The international norm is an orderly process of government-mandated automatic voter registration of every citizen who reaches voting age. In fact, Iraq has a higher share of its adult citizens registered to vote than the United States because the Iraqi government and the American authorities sponsored automatic voter registration of Iraqi citizens. When the government takes a proactive ongoing role, registration occurs on a steady rolling basis instead of in spurts tied to any specific election. Each voter receives a unique identifier that ensures she or he does not vote more than once.
Not only does such an orderly process provide nearly 100 percent voter registration, but it leads to much cleaner voter rolls and less voter fraud. With comprehensive databases and full registration, there is no longer a question about who is or is not registered. Everyone who is a citizen and has reached the age requirement is registered to vote.
The full report can be found here.