President Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity has ignited a fierce debate about whether rampant voter fraud exists in this country as well as the extent of the federal government’s role in administering elections and maintaining voting rolls. Despite the tremendous push-back thus far against the Commission, this remains a golden opportunity to vastly improve elections in America.
As scholars and practitioners of politics, we believe that the top priority for the Commission should be to make our system of administering elections and registering voters fairer and more efficient. The time has come for universal voter registration for every American who turns 18, with this linked directly to our existing Social Security numbers. With this approach, voter registration would also become portable as people move across precinct, municipal, county, and state lines.
We frequently find that voters are unaware of the fact that state, county, and local governmental entities are responsible for running elections and managing voter rolls in the United States. Despite there being essentially no evidence of in-person voter fraud in the United States, the way we currently handle voter registration does lead to the possibility that many voters are legally registered to cast ballots in multiple states or counties. Although there is limited cooperation between some states on this issue, the current patchwork system does create the possibility that individuals could vote twice, although this rarely — if ever — occurs.
Americans are highly mobile and this means they frequently move between states. Any of us who have ever moved should not be surprised that earlier in the year when President Trump raised the issue of voter fraud, it was easy for the media to find examples of Trump aides and supporters who were registered in more than one state. This is a personal problem for them, but it is also a policy problem for the country. A loose registration process can cause the integrity of the entire system to be called into question, potentially undermining the democratic system.
Overlapping registration in different localities can easily occur when citizens do not inform local registrars that they have moved away. Building a national voter database linked to existing Social Security numbers would solve the problem of a highly mobile population coupled with archaic registration systems. This would enable a citizen’s voter registration to travel with them and could insure that we would never again would we have to wonder in how many states our names may appear on voter rolls.
As for the mechanics of such a system, states would submit a list of registered voters quarterly to the national government. The federal government will cross check names on their list and produce a verified database that would be distributed to the states before each election. Such a registry composed of a mix of federal and state data reflects our unique American system of federalism.
This idea is not a radical one since there are already many shared federal-state responsibilities such as tax collection, transportation, food inspection, and law enforcement. This would lead to greater security but would not impinge on personal freedoms or create a national identification card, a legitimate concern of many civil libertarians.
Layered data bases such as this are hardly unusual in the political marketing world. Political parties and campaigns work to build customer profiles by integrating a variety of kinds of information into a coherent whole. Something similar could be done with voter registration data collected from states then cross-matched by the federal government to build a uniform national voter registration database alongside universal registration. This would be a genuine step in the right direction that would make our system of election administration and voter registration considerably more fair, efficient, and democratic for all.
Kenneth Cosgrove, PhD, serves as associate professor of Government at Suffolk University in Boston, MA.
Nathan R. Shrader, PhD, serves as assistant professor of Political Science and director of American Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.