Counsel, Brennan Center’s Democracy Program
I would fix our system of voter registration. America is one of the few industrialized democracies that places the onus of registration on the voter. Elsewhere, it’s the government that’s responsible for building electoral rolls, whether by going door to door or using existing lists. Currently, more than 25 percent of eligible Americans are not registered to vote; that’s an astounding number, and one we could decrease significantly by requiring state and local officials to affirmatively register every eligible American citizen.
The kind of voter-initiated registration we have today in the United States did not exist until the late 19th century. It was instituted then with the intention of suppressing unpopular voters, especially former slaves and new European immigrants. Registering to vote has gotten easier since then, but it remains a barrier.
In 2001, a commission chaired by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford concluded, “The registration laws in force throughout the United States are among the world’s most demanding … [and are ] one reason why voter turnout in the United States is near the bottom of the developed world.” We see in Election Day that it can be incredibly easy to register to vote — as in Wisconsin, which offers election day registration — and that registration can serve as a barrier to voting, even when the voter does everything right, as with Leon Batts in New York, whose registration form wasn’t processed by the Board of Elections in time for election day.
A system of universal registration would require states to build complete electoral rolls and to guarantee that no eligible citizen would be unable to vote for want of being on the rolls. (To achieve this latter goal, states would have to allow voters to register on election day, as a failsafe.) Such a system would produce two clear improvements over the current process: (1) more eligible citizens would be registered and able to vote on election day, and (2) election officials could organize the process to avoid last-minute crunches and misallocation of resources.
This system would also have another effect, perhaps less concrete or immediate, but ultimately just as important: The valence of voter registration would change. It would be the obligation of the government to ensure that every eligible American is able to cast a vote on election day. Rather than a problem the voter herself must solve, the government’s obligation to register voters would become part of the way we think about the right to vote itself.
Renée Paradis works primarily on the Brennan Center‘s efforts to reform the process of voter registration, including fighting restrictions on voter registration drives and advocating for student voting rights. She also works on the center’s efforts to reenfranchise people with felony convictions and general election reform issues. Before joining the Brennan Center, she was a fellow at the Drug Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, and she clerked for Judge Karen Nelson Moore of the Sixth Circuit. She earned a B.A. from Columbia College in 1998 and a J.D. from Columbia Law School in 2003.