About one of three eligible citizens in the United States is not registered to vote – and it matters, since government need not deliver good policies for people who do not matter to policymakers. And unregistered citizens are guaranteed not to vote, so politicians can ignore their concerns.
To understand why so many people are not registered, consider Georgia, since each state has fairly wide latitude to set its own voting rules. Georgia requires that new residents and young adults turning 18 submit a voter registration application by the fifth Monday before the election in which they intend to vote. The same rule applies to people whose voter registration has expired or who have been purged from the list.
When they register, voters are required to provide a driver’s license number or a number from a state-issued identification document. If voters have neither, they can give the last four digits of their Social Security numbers or be assigned voter ID numbers by their local registrar. If you do not have your registration up to date 30 days before election day, you will not be allowed to vote.
If this sounds confusing, it is.
The system works well enough for people who live in the same place for a long time and who do not change their names — for example, male homeowners. But if you have recently moved, come of voting age, earned your citizenship, or changed your name (perhaps because of marriage), you better remember to register five weeks before election day.
Ironically, politicians conserve most of their campaign dollars for the last few weeks of the race. That’s also when the media does most of its coverage. So, the deadline to register comes weeks before many people have tuned in.
Here are four ideas to build turnout:
1. Let citizens register online. From deep red Kansas to bright blue California, online registration is being enacted in more states. It cuts administrative costs, since clerks do not need to enter data from paper registration forms. It also lets each citizen’s eligibility be confirmed almost instantly. Georgia has passed legislation to allow online voter registration, but the Secretary of State has yet to unveil the new system. It’s time to do so.
2. Let citizens keep their registration even if they move. Permanent registration would allow Georgians moving within the state to keep their registration; current law bars many from voting. Under permanent registration, registered voters could show up at the polling place appropriate to their new home, show their ID, fill out a form and vote normally.
3. Offer election day registration. Eleven states do this, allowing citizens to register and vote at the same time. Given Georgia’s law that voters present photo ID at the polling place, loosening preregistration requirements is unlikely to increase the risk of voter fraud.
4. Make registration automatic. Consider jury duty. Like voting, it’s a responsibility every citizen can be called upon to undertake. Any time citizens interact with state or local government, they would be automatically entered into the voter registration database.
Charles Hankla and Jennifer McCoy teach political science at Georgia State University.
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