Our voter registration system is a disaster, and I have the scars to prove it. I spent eight years in the partisan cross hairs of election administration while serving as Ohio’s chief election official. No element of election administration is more fraught with controversy than how we register voters.
Every year, states spend millions of dollars on an inefficient voter registration system better suited to the 19th century. The system wastes resources at a time when states and local governments are struggling to make ends meet, and it creates a climate in which fraud by third-party voter registration groups such as ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) can undermine the sanctity of our democratic process.
There is a solution. By using technology to make voter registration more automated, we can save money and get rid of those groups that thrive by gaming the voter registration system.
In August, the bipartisan Committee to Modernize Voter Registration announced its formation and commitment to bringing voter registration into the 21st century. Though I disagree with many of the committee members on various policy issues, I agree we should apply American innovation to the inefficiencies of the registration process.
The costs of voter registration are staggering. Between designing and printing millions of paper registration forms, training staff, hiring temporary workers to process forms, mailing materials to invalid or outdated addresses and maintaining the lists over time (among other expenses), voter registration costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every cycle. In 2008 alone, Los Angeles County spent more than $12 million simply to process all of the voter registration forms and maintain its lists, and the state of Oregon spent nearly $3 for each active voter in its files. In Columbus, Ohio, we spent more than $1 million on this outdated process.
What do taxpayers get for all this money? A system rife with errors and the potential for fraud and partisan disputes in which responsibility for guarding the gateway to our democracy is abdicated to unregulated and poorly trained third-party registration groups like ACORN. These groups submitted millions of voter registration forms, but only about one-third of those forms were from new voters. About one-third were from voters who already were on the list, while another third of the forms were either incomplete or fraudulent.
In addition to creating an environment for fraud, this deluge of registration forms right around registration deadlines overwhelms election officials and takes our attention away from other critical election functions.
The integrity of our election system requires an automated voter registration process that is accurate, permanent and secure. A modernized system would serve voters better and save states money by streamlining the process, substantially reducing or eliminating paper and minimizing administration costs. Voters also should have the opportunity to check online or in person to ensure they are properly registered in advance of the election.
Some states are moving in this direction and already are seeing significant cost savings. Delaware began registering voters automatically at its motor vehicle departments at the beginning of this year and already has cut more than $200,000 in personnel costs from its voter registration system.
In Arizona, which recently started registering voters online, the costs of registration fell from 83 cents for processing a paper voter registration form to 3 cents for processing an online application.
The Internal Revenue Service and state tax boards seem to know where to find us every year, yet the current voter registration system requires each of us to file a new registration form when we move or risk losing our vote. The process is particularly problematic for military and other voters overseas, who frequently change addresses but don’t have the time or ability to update their registrations.
Both the government and individuals must assume responsibilities in the democratic process. Government should be responsible for updating voter rolls as citizens’ addresses or statuses change, but individual voters still will be responsible for showing up to vote - that would not be automated.
Furthermore, a substantially automated system would mean we would verify the eligibility of voters better than we do now. Voters who show up in the databases of social service agencies, for example, already have proved their citizenship.
In addition to saving states money, automating voter registration would get rid of ACORN and ensure that only eligible citizens get on the rolls.
Furthermore, modernization would have the added advantage of making many of the provisions of the burdensome and erratically enforced National Voter Registration Act (the “motor voter” law) obsolete.
Americans can no longer afford to ignore this problem of an antiquated voter registration system. Now is the time for reform - with support from both parties - before the politics of the next election cycle render it impossible.
Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state, is a senior fellow at the American Civil Rights Union and the Family Research Council. He is a visiting professor of law at Liberty University School of Law.