Like our financial system, our voter registration system needs a federal government bailout. Before the election, while the public and press are still paying attention, we should get both presidential candidates to commit to a more sensible, secure, and universal voter registration process.
When it comes to charges of "voter fraud" and "vote suppression," each election is worse than the last. This year, John McCain has claimed that some fraudulent voter registration cards turned in by ACORN employees threatened the "fabric of democracy." The Obama campaign has sent letters to Attorney General Michael Mukasey accusing Republicans of deliberately trying to suppress the vote. And the Ohio Republican Party is battling the Ohio secretary of state—in litigation that's already made it to the Supreme Court—over mismatches between voter registration and motor-vehicle-department databases. Now House Minority Leader John Boehner wants the Department of Justice to get involved to stop voter fraud. That went so well last time, so why not?
These charges and countercharges are the real danger to the fabric of our democracy. If people are not convinced their votes will be accurately counted, they are more likely to view election results as illegitimate and, therefore, the government less worthy of our respect and willingness to abide by the rule of law.
What can be done about it? Though there are many things that can be done to improve our election system—from nonpartisan election administration, to a uniform ballot design for federal elections, to improvements in our voting machinery—the most urgent fix is needed for our system of voter registration.
Right now, voter registration takes place primarily on the county level, and it requires a lot of effort on the part of outside groups such as ACORN, the political parties, and others. These groups sometimes work with volunteers, but more often than not they pay people to collect voter registration forms.
This is where a lot of the registration fraud comes from. Even for workers not paid by the card, a low-wage worker doing voter registration may be tempted to falsify information to keep his or her job, going so far as to register names in the phone book or cartoon characters. (This is why registration fraud does not lead to actual election fraud: These false names are not part of any effort to get thousands of people to the polls claiming to be someone else to vote for a candidate whose supporters cannot verify how anyone at the polling place has voted.)
The New York Times recently reported that ACORN turned in about 400,000 registration cards that were duplicates, incomplete, or fraudulent. And in California, a Republican-leaning group has been accused of changing Democratic registrants to a Republican affiliation without their permission. Why not, when they were paid $7 to $12 for each Republican registration?
The solution is to take the job of voter registration for federal elections out of the hands of third parties (and out of the hands of the counties and states) and give it to the federal government. The Constitution grants Congress wide authority over congressional elections. The next president should propose legislation to have the Census Bureau, when it conducts the 2010 census, also register all eligible voters who wish to be registered for future federal elections. High-school seniors could be signed up as well so that they would be registered to vote on their 18th birthday. When people submit change-of-address cards to the post office, election officials would also change their registration information.
This change would eliminate most voter registration fraud. Government employees would not have an incentive to pad registration lists with additional people in order to keep their jobs. The system would also eliminate the need for matches between state databases, a problem that has proved so troublesome because of the bad quality of the data. The federal government could assign each person a unique voter-identification number, which would remain the same regardless of where the voter moves. The unique ID would prevent people from voting in two jurisdictions, such as snowbirds who might be tempted to vote in Florida and New York. States would not have to use the system for their state and local elections, but most would choose to do so because of the cost savings.
There's something in this for both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats talk about wanting to expand the franchise, and there's no better way to do it than the way most mature democracies do it: by having the government register voters. For Republicans serious about ballot integrity, this should be a winner as well. No more ACORN registration drives, and no more concerns about Democratic secretaries of state not aggressively matching voters enough to motor vehicle databases.
Finally, universal voter registration is good for the country, not only because it will make it easier for those who wish to vote to do so, but because it should end controversy over ballot integrity that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our election process. If President McCain or Obama makes this a priority, we can have the system ready in time for the president's re-election.