Elections Problems Still Exist, But There's A Good First Fix

Having just completed the fourth national election in the last six years, it's clear that there is the great potential for things to go wrong-sometimes very wrong. There was no single, shattering meltdown in 2006, but there were many reports of failures-with machines, new computerized voter registration databases, a state-by-state patchwork of arbitrary registration deadlines and new voter ID requirements, poll worker training, and many others that effectively disfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters. And not just in Florida, but all around the country. Millions of voters nationwide, over the last several election cycles-including this one-experienced these problems, and were turned away from the voting booth.

Having served as the Secretary of State (the chief election official) of Connecticut for four years, and committing the last 20 years of my life-now at national public policy center Demos-working to ensure our elections are open to the widest eligible electorate possible, I can say that many of these problems have proven remedies. Election Day Registration (EDR), for example, is a great simple fix. Allowing people to register and vote on Election Day, with reasonable identification requirements, removes one of the barriers citizens face as they attempt to exercise their fundamental right to vote and fixes many of the Elections Day problems that have plagued voters in recent years.

In fact, reports from election observers, and from thousands of voter emails and phone calls to national assistance hotlines, made it clear that registration problems created some of the most serious obstacles at the polls on November 7. Longtime voters found that their names had disappeared from the registration databases; first and last names were sometimes misspelled on voter lists, causing problems as poll workers struggled to match names; and many people found that they were simply too late and thus unqualified to cast their vote. This happened over and over again in non-EDR states, but rarely happened in Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Idaho and the newest EDR state, Montana. In those states people were provided the opportunity to register or re-register and cast a ballot like everyone else.

Sometimes, in states that do not have EDR, when voters were told they weren't on the rolls, they were offered a provisional ballot. This doesn't instill much confidence, as history documents that almost 700,000 provisional ballots, approximately one-third of those cast, went uncounted in 2004. Given the large number of provisional ballots that were cast this year, and states' wide latitude in determining the process for counting such ballots, it is likely that many provisional votes will be left uncounted. In EDR states, voters don't have to worry about casting a provisional ballot that might, or might not, count.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of EDR's success is turnout: Four of the top 10 states with the highest turnout this year allowed EDR. This year, EDR states had an average turnout approximately 10 percentage points higher than non-EDR states. During Presidential election years, that grows to over 12 percentage points.

Election Day Registration benefits all voters. Research indicates that it leads to little added administrative complexity, does not increase fraud, and has bipartisan support-facts which should move this simple reform onto the radar of the 110th Congress. In fact, one of the freshmen House members, Dean Heller (R-NV), Nevada's current Secretary of State, has been a strong EDR supporter. Congressman-elect Heller, along with others in both parties concerned with the state of our election system would serve the people well by taking action on national EDR legislation-and doing so alongside other much needed reforms before 2008.