For the first time ever, people around the country who love American democracy have decided to come together to observe a National Voter Registration Day on September 25, 2012—a day to pull out all the stops in making sure that every eligible voter is registered and able to vote in this critical election year. Hundreds of non-partisan organizations have agreed to reach out to help hundreds of thousands of people get registered to vote so that they can fulfill their civic duty as citizens and make their voices heard in November.
This is an inspiring project that all of us should support. But it also provides an important occasion for asking deeper questions about our voting system: Why exactly are there so many Americans who are not registered to vote, and how can we improve our electoral system to get rid of red tape around the registration process and ensure that every eligible person is able to exercise the freedom to vote? American democracy should be a model for the world. A legitimate government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” must vigorously promote and protect the freedom to vote so that all eligible voters can participate in this fundamental exercise in self-government. But today, in the 21st century, too many bureaucratic barriers still block the ability of eligible persons to register, which in most states remains a prerequisite to voting. Our antiquated system puts the burden of registration on each individual, with unnecessarily restrictive registration deadlines.
The numbers tell the tale of how far we have to go in making sure all eligible persons can register:
- Today, approximately 51 million eligible Americans are still not registered to vote. This represents almost one in four eligible persons, disproportionately low-income voters, people of color, and younger Americans. Among eligible voters, some 30 percent of African Americans, 40 percent of Hispanics, 45 percent of Asian Americans, and 41 percent of young adults (age 18-24), were not registered to vote in the historic 2008 election.
- In the 2008 elections, the voting rate for all eligible persons of voting age was only 64 percent, while the voting rate for people who were registered to vote was 90 percent – showing that registration is key to turnout.
- In many states, pre-election registration deadlines of 25-30 days prior to the election have not been updated for decades; such deadlines may have been adopted long before the age of the Internet or computers, and no longer make sense in today’s world.
- In the 2008 election, 2 to 3 million registered voters were prevented from voting because of various administrative problems, and 9 million eligible Americans were not registered because of residency rules or registration deadlines.
- The number of people barred from voting in 2008 because of such problems exceeded the popular vote margin of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
Apart from the numbers, the stories of individuals caught up in red tape around voting underscore the need for reform.
Former U.S. Representative Lincoln Davis, of Tennessee, knows something about elections and government, yet this year when he went to polls in his hometown where he’d been voting since 1995, he was denied the right to vote.
We walked in and they told me I was not a registered voter. I had been taken off the list ... These are people who I grew up with. I told them I live here. I went to school about 20 yards away. ... It’s always been this way and today, for some reason, they change it. I had a sense of uneasiness when I was told that I was not allowed to vote. They didn’t offer me a provisional ballot, or anything, just told me I wasn’t registered. ... He said I would have to re-register, and I told them I’m already registered, I’m not going to re-register. I’m a former member of Congress, state senator, House member, mayor and all my life, I’ve been involved in the community, coaching Little League, participating in Boy Scouts and serving on boards here, and I’m denied the right to vote. It just doesn’t make sense.
Representative Davis had been improperly “purged” from the voting rolls. If it can happen to a former Congressman, it can happen to anyone.
All this makes clear that a major focus for increasing citizen participation in elections should be to decrease the bureaucratic barriers to becoming, and remaining, registered to vote. Americans deserve an election system that is much more responsive to their needs, and that facilitates their participation in democratic governance.