Strangling Democracy: How America Disguises Voter Suppression as Voter Registration

It’s time for automatic voter registration in the United States

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A poll worker sanitizes a voting booth during early voting, 2020 (Image/Scientific American)

Last Tuesday, a single cable got cut and Virginia’s entire online voting registration system went down — on the last day of registration to vote in the 2020 election. Last Monday, Florida’s online voter registration portal also crashed, also on the last day of filing.

Thankfully, the deadlines for registration were subsequently extended in both cases. Yet, it begs the question: is a system that puts millions of votes at risk with a single glitch truly functional? Can democracy truly flourish when voter suppression is as easy as a pair of cable cutters?

It isn’t like this in other democratic countries. A few weeks ago, a Swedish pen pal of mine wrote to me in bewilderment with questions about America’s voter registration system. He couldn’t understand how the requirements to be an eligible voter differed from state to state, or why the onus was on voters to register themselves. Our voter registration system seemed utterly bizarre to him, because, as he explained, Swedish citizens are automatically added to a national voter registry the moment they turn 18.

And it isn’t just Sweden. Citizens are automatically added to their country’s voter registry in at least 18 other countries, including Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Finland. Yet in the United States, an average of 36% of residents per state were not registered to vote as of 2018. Within that data pool, researchers found that less than half of the U.S. population aged 18–24 were registered to vote at the same time. Worse, a study of 21 states done by the Brennan Center For Justice found that registration rates were down by huge percentages, Maryland sitting at the bottom with -87% compared to 2016. Compare these numbers to Canada’s 90% voter registration rate, and then ask yourself,

America’s voter registration system has been a thinly-veiled voter suppression tactic since its inception.

To fully answer that question, we need to go back in time.

On the whole, America instituted its voter registration system as a means to control and, in most cases, suppress the vote of poor citizens and newly-freed slaves. The practice was mostly limited to New England in the early 1800’s, and registration was done in person, making it easy for assessors to skip over the houses of poor people or come by when they weren’t home.

This was perfectly legal, and even supported by the courts. In 1831, a man named Josiah Capen arrived at his Boston polling station only to find that his name had been left off the voter registrar. He sued in an attempt to overturn Massachusetts’ registration system and lost. This set a precedent that essentially said, so long as election officials could convincingly argue that their restrictions helped prevent voter fraud, they could erect whatever barrier to voting they liked. States would build on that precedent for generations to come.

Registration requirements became widespread in the late 19th century, specifically in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, specifically to prevent freed slaves who had moved up North from voting. Many states required literacy tests which weren’t eliminated until 1965, and poll taxes shut out Black and poor voters alike until 1964. In 1867, New Jersey passed legislation that limited registration to a single Thursday before an election and allowed anyone to dispute a voter’s eligibility. In southern states like Mississippi, the Jim Crow Laws erected so many barriers to voting that the percentage of eligible Black men who were registered to vote went from more than 90% to less than 6% in the space of two years. The 15th Amendment officially prohibited racial discrimination at the polls, but allowed states to deny convicted felons their right to vote; some of the subsequent felon disenfranchisement laws enacted still exist to this day.

This pattern wasn’t limited to people of color; in 1908, New York held voter registration only on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur in order to shut out Jewish voters. So, in essence, America’s voter registration system has been a thinly-veiled voter suppression tactic since its inception.

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Registration line in Selma, 1963 (Image/Teaching For Change)

As a nation, we’ve undoubtedly made strides towards expanding voters’ rights and making registration more accessible, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 “Motor Voter Law.” Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, requiring states to create statewide voter registration lists and replace outdated equipment.

But in 2013, the Supreme Court decision showed that America still has a long way to go in the fight to protect voting rights. The Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of voter discrimination to submit changes to their election laws to the Department of Justice for review. Texas, one of those states, acted on the as the SCOTUS decision to institute a strict voter ID law that the Voting Rights Act had previously prohibited. North Carolina attempted to do the same, but the ID law it instituted was struck down by a federal judge who accused lawmakers of targeting Black voters with “almost surgical precision.” In 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bill to restore the provision overturned, renamed the John Lewis Act in 2020, but it has been sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk since December.

According to the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition, twenty-three states created new barriers to voting between 2008 and 2018. Among these barriers are Voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect lower-income citizens who have P.O. Box addresses or cannot pay the fees most ID forms require, and voter roll purges that delete the names of millions of eligible voters off the registrar.

Further, felon disenfranchisement laws live on today in some form or another in 48 of America’s 50 states. Juxtapose this fact with the 2017 research findings that Black people were 50% more likely to be falsely convicted of murder and more likely to be falsely convicted of drug crimes than white people, and the problem quickly becomes evident.

This isn’t voter fraud, it’s good old-fashioned bureaucratic inefficiency.

But even beyond the discrimination, exclusionary history, and state-to-state inconsistencies, the way America registers voters is plain old outdated.

Every election cycle, eligible voters flood the registration system in the months or even weeks before the election, burying poorly-staffed and underfunded administrators in millions of last-minute applications, both paper and online. After the 2012 election, Pew Research played the tune election experts by now have memorized: 24% of the eligible voting population wasn’t registered, one in eight registrations were either invalid or contained inaccuracies, two million dead people remained on the rolls, and 2.75 million people were registered to vote in more than one state. A 2008 MIT study found that at least 2.2 million people weren’t able to vote on election day due to registration issues, and at least 5.7 million faced registration issues at the polls which were later resolved. This isn’t voter fraud, it’s good old-fashioned bureaucratic inefficiency.

Many states have since launched some form of online registration systems, which dramatically cut costs and likely improved efficiency. But as we saw in Florida and Virginia, all it takes is a glitch to put millions of votes in peril. And, as of August 2020, 10 states are still entirely limited to paper applications. Combine that mountain of paper with human fallibility and fast-approaching deadline of Election Day and errors are bound to pile up. Of course, the most obvious place such errors manifest is the polling station.

We’re already seeing this happen across the country. Lines for early voting have reportedly stretched anywhere from two to hours long. There comes a time when record enthusiasm gives way to poor function.

A good deal of that backlog spawns from registration issues — as Heather Gerken wrote, “If you’ve ever stood in line at a grocery store, you know exactly how it works. The moment a clerk flicks on the light to ask for a price check, the line begin to grow.” Likewise, the moment a poll worker encounters a registration error or has to search for provisional ballots, wait times begin to stretch.

Automatic enrollment would significantly reduce those wait times and prevent eligible voters from being turned away from the polling station. It would reduce administrative errors, automatically update voter information using data-tracking software, and even help prevent voter fraud. Further, it would reduce the cost of registering a voter from $7 per registry to something more like Canada’s 35 cents.

On top of its numerous advantages, automatic enrollment isn’t even new in the U.S. Thirty states already use ERIC, a form of data-tracking software, to keep track of voter information and maintain clean rolls. Oregon became the first state to adopt an automatic enrollment system in 2015, enrolling 225,000 people who hadn’t previously been registered to vote. Now, some form of automatic registration system is in place in 17 states and Washington, D.C. The process is still done through the Department of Motor Vehicles, but the difference is that instead of giving eligible voters the option to opt the state registers them to vote automatically and gives them the option to opt

The process isn’t perfect, because not every citizen interacts with the DMV. It would be more effective to add citizens to a national registry at birth or extend the automatic enrollment protocol to every social service with which voters routinely come in contact. But it is a crucial first step down the path of real civic participation for every American.

Bottom line: America’s voter registration methods are outdated, inefficient, and costly. They result in millions of lost votes per election cycle and huge wait times that discourage citizens from exercising their most sacred democratic right. The reality America must face is that voting has been divorced from citizenship since the dawn of our nation, and our registration system is a direct descendant of our outdated, exclusionary, and discriminatory history. The goal, from 1800s to the modern day, has consistently been to prevent votes, not encourage them.

It is time — and has been for a while — for America to join the rest of the democratic world and reunite citizenship with the right to vote. If voting is as critical and hallowed as we ostensibly believe, we must treat it as such in practice. For democracy to truly thrive, every American must have a voice, and be actively encouraged to use it.

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Written by

Recovering student. Sometimes-writer. Find me on Twitter: @tasteofsanity.

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