How can these seemingly competing concerns be resolved? Our research has shown that both goals – fighting fraud and simplifying voting – can be achieved through automatic voter registration.
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Some states have already made it easier to register to vote
Before they can cast a vote, an American must register to vote. In most states, this means figuring out when and where to register, acquiring and completing the form (in person or online), and providing any documents needed to prove citizenship and residency in the state.
What if there was an easier way?
Some states have already eliminated complicated registration procedures. In North Dakota, you can vote without being registered as long as you can show identification, such as a driver’s license, to prove you are eligible. Many other states allow you to register up until Election Day.
However, many election officials and voters find pre-registration helpful. This allows election administrators to plan properly to have enough polling stations, ballots, and officials on hand. For voters, registration brings mailers with background information on elections and referenda, as well as other advance notices that can remind them when and where to vote.
Is there a way to keep an electoral register and at the same time relieve the burden on the citizens? Some states have found what they believe to be the solution: automatic voter registration. In this type of process, the state automatically registers each eligible voter who interacts with nationwide databases, e.g. B. when applying for or extending a driver’s license. To do this, the state links its voter registration list with other population lists that the state already collects. For example, if you renew a US citizenship, the computer will check if your name, age and address are on the electoral rolls – and if not, it will add you automatically.
This relieves citizens of administrative tasks and potentially increases the accuracy of the registration lists.
Some have argued that this could lead to inaccurate registers – for example through the inadvertent registration of non-citizens – which could create confusion in the elections. is that accurate
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The global evidence and experiences
In our research into voter registration around the world, we found that government agencies often use existing databases to create a voter roll. According to our research, 78 countries around the world automatically register voters from a sample of 156. Others share databases to facilitate voting in a less than automatic way, but receive information from other government databases or sub-national election officials, as Canada does. For example, the Finnish Population Register automatically compiles a list of eligible voters, which is sent to electoral officials six weeks before the election.
Our research has found that countries with some form of automatic or government-initiated voter registration tend to have more complete and accurate lists than systems that require individuals to register themselves. They list more and more precisely those who are eligible to vote – for example, update addresses when there is a change of post without the voter having to inform the residents’ registration office of the move.
Some US states have followed this trend. Since the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, states have been required to allow voters to register with motor vehicle authorities. But lately there has been a bigger push. In 2021, Hawaii became the youngest state to pass legislation allowing automatic voter registration. Other state parliaments are working on similar bills.
According to recent research, automatic voter registration does not appear to significantly increase voter turnout. But by making electoral lists more complete and accurate, states can make it easier for some populations, particularly minorities and poorer citizens, to vote.
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The United States does not have national or statewide population registries, so how does it automatically register voters?
If a country doesn’t have reliable, centralized data about its citizens, it has to find other ways to register voters. In the UK, for example, some advocates recommend that the country should automatically register citizens to vote at key moments in life using social security databases or when applying for a passport. Many U.S. states could take a similar approach, capturing key data as citizens interact with government agencies ranging from the Department of Motor Vehicles to Social Services.
Heated party debates about the rules of democracy can erode trust in democratic institutions and complicate policy-making. Scientific evidence suggests that automatic voter registration can provide accurate and complete registers and can enhance and protect democracy.
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Holly Ann Garnet (@hollyanngarnett) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada, Co-Director of the Electoral Integrity Project, and Associate Editor (with Michael Pal) of Cyber Threats to Canadian Democracy(McGill-Queens University Press, 2022).
Toby S James (@tobysjames) is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia, UK, Co-Director of the Electoral Integrity Project and author of Comparative election management: performance, networks and instruments (Routledge, 2020).