03/02/2012 - Catalogues, credit card offers and college alumni newsletters always seem to find us when we move. Many Americans - one in four - assume their voter registrations also keep up. Not so. The "world's greatest democracy" still largely depends on an outdated and inefficient voter registration system, using hand-written paper forms and manual data entry, that is curiously resistant to modern technology and cannot keep up with our mobile society.
While many public transactions with government today can be done effectively through technology - paying taxes or parking tickets, renewing a driver's license - many states lack a way for voters to conveniently register or update their voter registration online. By failing to adopt modern technology and techniques commonly used in the private sector today, our voter registration systems are plagued with errors and inefficiencies, wasting taxpayer dollars, undermining voter confidence and fueling partisan fights over the integrity of our elections.
A recent Pew report underscores the need for a fundamental upgrade of our system: More than 50 million eligible citizens - one in four - remain unregistered. Some 24 million voter registrations - one in eight - are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate. About 12 million voter records have incorrect addresses, indicating that either the voters have moved, or errors in the file make it unlikely the U.S. Postal Service can reach them. Some 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state. And more than 1.8 million Americans currently listed as voters are deceased.
Voter registration is the gateway to our democracy. But our current voter registration system was better suited for the 19th century when Americans mostly stayed put for decades. Today, about one in eight Americans moved during each of the 2008 and 2010 election years. U.S. military personnel and young people are even more transient. Many voters do not realize they need to update their registrations, and only about half know they can do so at the motor vehicles office.
What's more, the voter registration process still relies on paper and mail. Applicants fill out paper forms and flood election offices with millions of paper registration applications, often from third-party voter registration drives. Election officials need to decipher and input the handwritten data manually, usually on tight deadlines in the weeks preceding a major election. This cumbersome and frenzied process leads to needless errors, loses track of voters, and needlessly strains state election office resources - while Oregon's state and local taxpayers spent more than $4 per active voter to process registrations in 2008, Canada, using modern technology, spends 35 cents.
Fortunately, state leaders from across the country, from both parties, are beginning to seize on available technology and proven solutions to make their voter systems more accurate, efficient and cost-effective.
Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington are teaming to establish a data center that will compare registration lists with other data sources to broaden the base of information used to update and verify voter rolls. With this stronger voter data, they are adopting proven techniques and security protocols to better identify inaccurate and out-of-date records so that election officials can clean up the lists, while also identifying eligible citizens who are not registered and making it more convenient for them to do so. State officials also have found that enabling voters to submit their information online produces more accurate information at a lower cost. Not surprisingly, registered voters polled about the online process in states where it is available were happy with the ease and convenience.
Consider that Maricopa County, Ariz., saved more than $1 million in five years by providing online voter registration instead of paper and manual data entry. Each online registration costs three cents to process, on average, compared with 83 cents per paper form.
The intense public debate today about the role of government demands an electoral system that allows the fullest level of public engagement while protecting the integrity of the electoral process. Across the globe, people are fighting and dying for the right to vote, inspired by our system. Our citizens deserve the opportunity to voice their views through the right to vote. Let's guarantee that right by helping our state election officials bring the nation's voter registration system - finally - into the 21st century.
Rebecca Rimel is president and chief executive officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts.