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Should US Simplify Voter Registration?

A modest proposal to reinvigorate American democracy

TWENTY-FIVE years ago Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, one of the most significant changes in United States voting law. The act enfranchised millions of Americans and helped reinvigorate our political system. Next month, Congress has a similar opportunity when it once again considers the National Voter Registration Act, or the "motor-voter" bill.For decades, the US has had the lowest voter participation among all major democracies. A central cause is our archaic and inconvenient registration system, which often requires voters to drive miles to register or update their registration each election cycle. This bill would help to alleviate this problem by allowing Americans to register quickly and conveniently. The bill would require states to allow citizens to register when they apply for or renew a driver's license, or apply for services in welfare, unemployment, and vocational rehabilitation agencies. The program is expected to add 65 million people to the rolls, raising the national registration level from 60 percent to nearly 95 percent. Simplified registration increases voter turnout. States like Minnesota with simpler registration procedures have turnout rates 12 to 16 percentage points higher than the national average. Most experts agree that national voter turnout will increase substantially with these reforms. Critics continue to question the connection between registration and voter turnout, citing conclusions of a recent Congressional Research Service report that have been widely disputed. The report concluded that it is impossible to determine definitively whether motor-voter programs would increase participation. The report, however, depended exclusively on self-reporting by the states, failing to differentiate, for example, between states that actively sought to register voters and those that simply placed a box of registration forms under a shelf in the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. Further, it lumped together states that had operating programs and those with programs planned but not implemented. Motor vehicle bureaus should be the foundation of voter registration reform in the US. Driver's licenses and photo IDs are becoming almost as universal as Social Security cards. In 1988, 91 percent of voting age Americans had either drivers' licenses or photo IDs issued by motor vehicle bureaus. Particularly important, voter registration in government agencies, especially in DMV bureaus, would provide a quick and automatic way to reregister the one in three Americans who move every two years and lose the ir registration status. Millions of Americans typically left out of the process would be able to register. For example, minorities would be enfranchised: Driver/ID registration programs would reach 90 to 95 percent of large Hispanic populations in the Southwest. Likewise, in the South blacks would gain a powerful registration tool. Low-income Americans would be enfranchised: Of the 75 million unregistered Americans, two-thirds reside in households below the median income. And the bill would dramatically increase registration am ong younger voters and the disabled. Critics have focused on three areas: states' rights, voter fraud, and cost. * Some claim that national registration reform represents another intrusion on states' rights. In fact, the states initiated these reforms; 25 states already have inaugurated some form of motor-voter program. The National Voter Registration Act would extend this innovation to all states, and standardize the method of administration. * Opponents claim these reforms will encourage fraud. In fact, they will reduce it. DMV bureaus, welfare, unemployment, and vocational rehabilitation agencies require extensive documentation in support of applications that would also serve as documentation for voter registration, thus protecting the integrity of the electoral process. The legislation contains strict anti-fraud protections. * Opponents say these reforms will make voter registration more costly when, in fact, it will reduce registration costs per transaction. Computerized DMVs around the country report that it costs only about 25 cents to register people to vote while renewing or applying for licenses or IDs - far less than in the traditional way. Underlying opposition to this bill is Republican concern that it is simply a ploy to register more Democrats. That is a thin and especially partisan reed on which to lean in opposing this bill. Enacting the National Voter Registration Act would be a modest but important step forward to reinvigorate American democracy by broadening citizen participation. It will not cure all of the ills that plague our system, such as voter apathy and cynicism and 30-second television attack ads. But if it simply increases voter participation, it will be an important step toward truly representative democracy.

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