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A Plea For Same-Day Voter Registration

It's after Labor Day. You're just back (mentally or physically) from the long summer break. Political posters are lining the streets. Candidates and supporters are pushing leaflets right, left, and center at your subway stop. Now you remember ... there's an election coming. You're ready to pay attention, choose your candidates. The primary is on September 11. But wait. If you are not already registered to vote, and registered in a political party, you've missed your chance to cast a ballot in this heavily contested primary.

By state law, the voter registration books closed on August 17. This was 25 days before the primary and before many potential voters even began to pay attention to the election. You can still register to vote in the November general election; that deadline is October 12. But this provides little comfort when most of the races will be decided in the primary.

Voter registration seems relatively simple - and certainly over the past 10 or 15 years it has become much easier. You fill out a short form, mail it to the Board of Elections, and you're registered. But this extra step is likely to be one step too many for those who are less well-off, less educated, and are members of a racial or ethnic minority. Indeed, despite massive voter registration efforts for the 2000 election, 35 percent of the country's eligible citizens remained unregistered.

In the summer months preceding a primary, who is paying serious attention to the election? Who is paying the kind of attention that makes someone think, "Do I need to register to vote? What's the deadline? Where do I get the forms?"

Why should potential voters have to jump through this extra hoop? Voting is not a test of a citizen's ability to negotiate a bureaucracy. Over the years, several academic studies have shown that registration is a substantial barrier to casting a ballot and a major cause for low voter turnout in the United States. Indeed, a study by Columbia University Professor Robert S. Erikson, tellingly titled "Why Do People Vote? Because They Are Registered," demonstrated that once registered, even new voters go to the polls at very high rates.

Six states have made registration as simple as it can be. Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Wyoming allow voters to register at the polls when they arrive to cast their ballot. North Dakota abandoned registration entirely in 1951. Five of these states have the highest voter turnout in the country.

The principal argument against scrapping advance registration requirements is the threat of increased fraud. This argument does not hold up to close scrutiny. First, there is no evidence that the states with same-day registration have had a problem with voter fraud. Indeed, Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have had same-day registration for more than 25 years. Second, there are remedies to protect against this risk. Some of the recommended anti-fraud measures include: requiring same-day registrants to sign an oath or affidavit, requiring adequate proof of identity and residence, requiring election day registrants to vote by paper, affidavit ballots, subject to challenge, and promptly verifying election-day registrants with a non-forwardable post card sent to their address. Centralized, computerized state registration records would also significantly protect the process against increased fraud.

Different jurisdictions have used different combinations of these anti-fraud measures depending on the needs of their state and their political culture. New York should identify which of these measures would work best in our political culture without making it more difficult for certain citizens, particularly members of a racial or ethnic minority, to vote. These tools and their successful use in other states make clear that if same-day registration does have an increased risk of fraud, which has not been shown, we have effective means to deal with it. The fear of fraud should not stifle this democratic reform.

Some opponents of same-day registration also argue that same-day registration for party primaries could trigger party-raiding that undermines the party's ability to control its selection of candidates. There is, of course, an easy solution to that complaint: if it is shown to be a problem, the state could simply prohibit those voters already registered from switching parties in the several weeks preceding the primary. Under this regime, registered voters' rights to choose and change their parties are as protected as they are now, and the parties retain some control over their choice of candidates, but a significant barrier for new voters is removed.

Recognizing that advance registration is an unnecessary restriction on the franchise and that problems with potential fraud can be solved, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and a handful of other politicians have recently called for the state to adopt same-day registration procedures, but Albany hasn't budged. Indeed, New York, and many other states, have long resisted any move toward same-day voter registration and most efforts to make registration easier. After the National Voter Registration Act (also known as the Motor Voter Act) was enacted in 1993, forcing states to ease voter registration requirements, New York was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for failing to comply with its requirements. And, almost every election year, including 2000, it is discovered that the state Department of Motor Vehicles has failed to properly process registrations submitted with driver's license applications, leaving potential voters without a ballot.

This kind of behavior is part and parcel of the last century's sad tradition of voter registration laws, which always had more to do with turning the electoral process into a game than opening democracy. But the spirit of Jim Crow in the South and the anti-immigrant laws of the North and West should be left with the past. We are in a new century, and there is no real justification for our advance registration laws. In short, the time has come for same-day registration.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

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