by E. Sebastian Arduengo
For all of the grandstanding some politicians do on the virtues of American democracy, one might think that voting here would be simple and easy. Instead, as shown repeatedly here on ACSblog, it is anything but. American voters, who are more mobile than ever, have to deal with the election bureaucracies of all 50 states, which include over 13,000 election districts and 110,000 polling places nationwide. Getting registered to vote in a new location after a move can be time consuming and cumbersome. The only notable exception to the bureaucratic nightmare that is getting registered and voting in the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions is North Dakota, where citizens to not need to be registered to vote. All they need to do is show up on Election Day.
In her book, Electoral Dysfunction, Victoria Bassetti argues that America is one of the few democracies in the world that places the burden on voters to prove that they are eligible to vote. So let’s look over our lapping shores to other lands to see how they manage the democratic process, and if there’s anything the United States can learn from their experiences.
Our neighbors to the north and south provide us with an immediate frame of reference. In Canada voter registration is largely done by the Canadian federal government as a means of protecting the constitutional rights of Canadian citizens. The government refers to other governmental records, like tax records to keep the voter rolls continuously updated. For people that aren’t registered Canada allows for same day voter registration. The government is legally obliged to keep its voter registration list private, and information from it can only be shared with parties and candidates at the time of an election, and then only for electoral purposes. Canada also imposes strict limits on election financing, curbing the amount of money political parties can spend. Major parties like the Liberal and Conservative parties were limited to about 20 million CAD total, and in 2006 the Canadian Parliament passed a bill allowing only individuals to contribute to parties and political candidates.
Mexico’s government takes the initiative in reaching out to voters. The Mexican government does not register voters itself, and requires voters to have a photo ID that also doubles as a national identification card. Government officials, however, are active about voter registration and run an efficient field campaign to register voters. The result is a registration rate that is above 90 percent, compared to a paltry 75 percent in the U.S. It’s also worth noting that despite enacting many of the “reforms” championed by conservatives in the U.S., such as voter ID laws, requiring voters to be registered six months before an election, and barring all forms of early and absentee voting; it’s only been recently that Mexico’s system for registering voters has not been seen as highly corrupt.
Other developed democracies take a centralized approach to voting. Though Australia has a federal system like that of the U.S. all voter registration is handled by the Australian Electoral Commission. Instead of going through their states, voters need only be registered with the AEC, which then passes information to the relevant state and local authorities. Like Canada, the AEC employs data sharing between government agencies to track changes in voter information and update the rolls.
Even in countries where voting is highly decentralized, such as the United Kingdom, it is still the government that initiates contact with voters through a nation-wide “canvass” conducted annually. Efforts to move to an individual registration system, like that of the U.S. to root out fraud have been bitterly opposed, with one MP writing that if the UK adopted such a policy “our country could follow the US into electing an illegitimate government from an unrepresentative democracy.” Indeed, countries that conduct voter registration similar to the United States, where voters are expected to report to the government when they initially register to vote and every time they move include such paragons of democracy as Belize, Burundi, and the Bahamas.
Unless the U.S. wants to be continually outclassed by other nations with respect to how the democratic process is conducted, Congress should initiate reforms that have been in the public sphere for years and are currently being implemented very successfully abroad. These include Election Day registration, voter outreach campaigns conducted by the government, and data sharing between governmental agencies to automatically update voter information. The experience in Canada and other countries has shown that this approach can be adopted at minimal cost, while having the net effect of increasing voter participation.
For more information, see the Brennan Center report, “Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World.”