Friday, October 31, 2008

Universal voter registration is a must

It's an idea I've been musing about for a long time, considering the need for election reform where it's needed most: getting people fairly registered, getting people able to cast their votes, and getting those votes to count.

I was in Broward County FL in 2000, Ground Zero of where and when our nation's antiquated and fragile election system collapsed on itself. With all the arguing over who actually won the major election (President Gore or President Bush?), the real issue got ignored: the problems with how we Americans cast our vote, and with who actually gets to vote.

Oh, we tried to fix the HOW problem, and in some cases made it worse. Election officials jumped quickly to the fancy touch-screen equipment, sadly ignoring the many flaws that system had and still has. Optical scans have gained in use this year's election: fewer flaws to it (still has security issues), although it really needs a receipt system so people can be comforted that their choices can be confirmed in case of a recount. And still the big problem of WHO gets to vote hasn't been fully addressed.

With the Republicans this year (same as 2004 and 2006) screaming about voter fraud with groups like ACORN submitting questionable registration forms, we may finally approach that issue. As law professor/blogger Rick Hasen noticed in a recent Slate article:

When it comes to charges of "voter fraud" and "vote suppression," each election is worse than the last... These charges and countercharges are the real danger to the fabric of our democracy. If people are not convinced their votes will be accurately counted, they are more likely to view election results as illegitimate and, therefore, the government less worthy of our respect and willingness to abide by the rule of law.

What can be done about it? Though there are many things that can be done to improve our election system—from nonpartisan election administration, to a uniform ballot design for federal elections, to improvements in our voting machinery—the most urgent fix is needed for our system of voter registration... Right now, voter registration takes place primarily on the county level, and it requires a lot of effort on the part of outside groups such as ACORN, the political parties, and others... This is where a lot of the registration fraud comes from. Even for workers not paid by the card, a low-wage worker doing voter registration may be tempted to falsify information to keep his or her job, going so far as to register names in the phone book or cartoon characters...

Hasen's idea for fixing this and getting the Dems and GOP to stop ranting (well, more than they usually do)?

The solution is to take the job of voter registration for federal elections out of the hands of third parties (and out of the hands of the counties and states) and give it to the federal government. The Constitution grants Congress wide authority over congressional elections. The next president should propose legislation to have the Census Bureau, when it conducts the 2010 census, also register all eligible voters who wish to be registered for future federal elections. High-school seniors could be signed up as well so that they would be registered to vote on their 18th birthday. When people submit change-of-address cards to the post office, election officials would also change their registration information.

This change would eliminate most voter registration fraud. Government employees would not have an incentive to pad registration lists with additional people in order to keep their jobs. The system would also eliminate the need for matches between state databases, a problem that has proved so troublesome because of the bad quality of the data. The federal government could assign each person a unique voter-identification number, which would remain the same regardless of where the voter moves (PERSONAL NOTE: This might bring up privacy red flags, but why not the person's Social Security number?). The unique ID would prevent people from voting in two jurisdictions, such as snowbirds who might be tempted to vote in Florida and New York...

This is close to what's known as Compulsory registration: the idea that once you hit the legal voting age (18) WHAMMO you not only got the right to vote but you could vote without going through the hoops of filing for it. Even with the ease of registering today thanks to the Moter Voter Law, people still have to go out of their way to do it. With compulsory registration, that's long gone: No paperwork, no muss, little fuss. A lot of countries in Europe have something like this: Denmark, Finland and Germany have something where the government automatically takes care of the right to vote along with putting the citizen on their health care/tax/mailing address national register, and they simply mail their citizens a voting ID postcard.

Hasen's idea has merit: We already have the U.S. Census keeping track of people (they have to, Congress has to figure out every 10 years how to gerrymander their districts), so why not use them to keep track of their right to vote and ensure they've got it? And Hasen solves one problem of what happens to people who move: it's called the U.S. Postal Service. Any updates to a person's mailing address can be simply uploaded to the Census' databases from one government office to the next.

Another problem not addressed: privacy rights. What about those people who don't like the idea of the government or anyone else tracking them. Solution: laws and constant enforcement of laws to ensure protection of the data from any abuse. Constant vigilance: heck, we need that anyway to ensure our privacy rights against those abusing them...

This is a must, a Thing To Do regardless of how Tuesday's vote goes: we need the next President, the next Congress to enact laws to provide universal voter registration. It doesn't need to be an amendment: the Constitution alreadys grants Congress to make the laws regarding their elections, and since state and local level elections follow how the national-level elections go, getting them to conform is a non-issue. Make universal registration simple. Make it effective. Protect the info. Get it done.

One group I'd like everyone to start contacting on this is Fairvote.org: see what they've got lined up to promote universal voter registration. Let's see if we can get Congress's attention before the next election cycle... Oh, AND VOTE PEOPLE! November 4, 2008! Or early voting if you've still got a few days to do it!

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