Voter Registration Needs Overhaul, Says Think Tank

May 22, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
A South Carolina voting booth is shown at the Shandon Fire Station
A South Carolina voting booth is shown at the Shandon Fire Station January 21, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Paper-based voter registration is outmoded, expensive, and inaccurate, and should be scrapped, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank. States should offer online registration, allow citizens to correct their own records, make registration portable, and allow same-day registration and voting, it said in a press conference on May 22.

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) introduced H.R. 5799, the Voter Empowerment Act of 2012, on May 17. It includes the features that the Brennan Center recommends, and more. Lewis famously served with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The Voter Empowerment Act is one of two momentous events about voting rights,” said Wendy Weiser. She directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

The second event is that the “courts upheld a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act—momentous,” she said. A number of Southern states are still under federal supervision because of Jim Crow-era practices that disenfranchised African-Americans. Some of the states sued to be released from supervision, but lost in the courts.

The new legislation is a “serious proposal,” which shows that Democratic leaders care about reducing the potential for fraud and making the rolls more accurate, according to Weiser. Computer security has come a long way since the controversies over potentially hackable voting machines, and online registration can be secure.

The Florida Department of State found thousands of deceased people registered as active voters, after a new state law allowed it to check voting lists against Social Security lists. According to the Sun-Sentinel, 51,966 deceased people were found listed as active voters. Florida is also checking for and purging non-citizens who were registered to vote. It announced that it found 180,000 possible non-citizens on voter lists.

“You’ve got to protect the integrity of the rolls,” said Richard DeNapoli, chairman of Broward’s Republican Executive Committee, quoted by the Sun-Sentinel.

Some Democratic leaders have downplayed the potential for voting by deceitfully or inaccurately registered people. Weiser said online registration eliminates a host of errors and alleviates concerns about fraud and misconduct. Electronic registration would bypass problems from typos during duplicate data entry to illegible handwriting to backlogs of unprocessed forms before an election day, she said.

H.R. 5799 builds on the “Motor Voter” National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which said eligible citizens must be able to register to vote at driver’s license offices and other government offices. The new act would require the agencies to take care of registering eligible voters online.

The changes would enfranchise more people, according to Myrna Perez, senior counsel, Democracy Program of the Brennan Center. She said the Pew Center released a report in which it said 51 million eligible voters are not registered, and one in eight voter records have inaccuracies.

The states that have already reformed their registration systems report a double to seven-fold increase in registered voters, according to Perez. “It’s a fairly non-controversial proposal,” said Weiser. “When steps have been taken, people have been pleased.”

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