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Merge Ahead? New Approach to Voter Registration Could Help Send Election Debates in a New Direction

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[Image courtesy of Connecticut Department of Transportation]

As partisan conflict over jobs, taxes and a host of other issues has intensified in the last several months, so too has the conflict over election policy - in particular, voter ID.

I've already made it pretty clear that I don't buy the dominant narrative - namely, that election policy debates are purely partisan fights aimed at creating favorable conditions for the 2012 Presidential election. I believe that those debates are more about the different policy views held by the parties and that by recognizing this we can identify and seize opportunities to make changes to our election system that serve voters while at the same time respecting the deeply-held views of both major parties.

If that's the least bit intriguing to you, then today is your lucky day.

At 10am this morning (Monday, September 19), the American Enterprise Institute will co-host an event with my former colleagues at the Pew Center on the States entitled "Bringing Voter Registration into the 21st Century."

AEI's blog post on the event sums it up nicely:

Like most things in Washington, there doesn't seem to be a lot of bipartisan cooperation on election reform issues. Generally, liberals and Democrats want to maximize access to voting, while conservatives and Republicans want to minimize the chances of voter fraud. So while liberals accuse conservatives of limiting Americans' ability to vote (via ID requirements, for example), conservatives accuse liberals of turning a blind eye to fraud.

However, there is one area in which liberals and conservatives find some common ground: both sides agree that the voter registration system is outdated and inefficient. Because voter rolls aren't kept clean and up-to-date, some voters show up on registration lists in more than one state, and this could open the door to fraud. Additionally, high numbers of new voter registrations tend to arrive at election offices in the weeks prior to an election--a time when staff is already stretched thin. This leads to more errors in voter information on the rolls.

[A]t AEI, we will host "Bringing Voter Registration into the 21st Century," an event hosting two bipartisan panels to discuss the problems with the current U.S. voter registration system and ways to fix them.

The approach these panels will discuss - one which uses the latest technology to assist states with populating and maintaining their voter rolls - offers a genuine opportunity to address many of the kinds of problems which I believe have been exacerbating current election policy debates. Pew's election team has been working for over a year with a bipartisan group of election officials, technologists and academics to devise this way forward - which they call "upgrading voter registration" and they are justifiably excited about its prospects for success.

It's so easy in the current charged political environment to focus on disagreement and conflict - but doing the hard work of identifying solutions and then making them happen is far more satisfying in the long run.

The election policy field desperately needs some good news - and this morning's event definitely qualifies. Do yourself a favor and check out today's event - whether in person or via the webcast (which will be available on the event page) - and then feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

4 Comments


  • "I don't buy the dominant narrative - namely, that election policy debates are purely partisan fights aimed at creating favorable conditions for the 2012 Presidential election."

    Three thoughts: 1) it may be that the "partisan interest" narrative is becoming the dominant one as it has been getting lots of ink, but I think far more people tout your "pure policy" version than you suggest--indeed the "pure policy" narrative seems a reasonable contender for dominant as it is the narrative of supporters of ID laws and of those who resist implementing the NVRA, etc.--that's to say: these officials/activists/politicians argue that their policy alternatives are just "good anti-fraud policy" and not partisan, and they seem to have lots of fans and supporters;

    2) I don't think that people who see partisan interests in voting administration see it "purely as that" (you're oversimplifying if you apply it too broadly to either each election admin policy situation or to each person speaking against a proposal);

    3) if you don't see any partisan interests in the debate (which you strongly imply in some paces and state in other places in the early posting the link above goes to) I think you would need to explain away a lot of what we know of voting rights history (even recent history) and even general theories of policy making. If election admin policy is a realm of policy making with pure motives, it certainly is a rare one (although I don't doubt many people do sincerely think that is what they are doing and some may be doing). In other words: that a realm with such clear temptation for seeking partisan advantage would remain pure, would need a lot of explanation given what we know from the history of this field of policy making in particular. After all, your own description of party dynamics/debate seems to contradict this "pure policy debate" theory as you provide more details. If matters are just about policy, why not fairly/evenly implement the NVRA in social service agencies when there is no evidence of it creating fraud (which McCain and others said it would when debating it in Congress....Wellstone mopped the floor with McCain back then, btw...people should read those transcripts to see how good Wellstone was)? Finally, this "pure policy" view is especially weak, it seems to me, in the face of the convincing analyses of GOP policies which show that they are addressing non-problems with clearly damaging new policies (convincing in that they stand up to reasonable and normal standards of argumentation and investigation in policy analysis).

    But, hey, if the rhetoric of "let's just simmer down, each admit our faults and find a new middle" works for expanding access, than I'm all for it, even though it requires glossing over some truth in the interests of reconcilliation. However, given how difficult the implementation of the NVRA has been (to the disadvantage of those least registered, which, I hasten to add, is partly partisan and partly due to organizational matters that plague many reforms' implementation phase), I have some concerns about new reforms.

    Note, btw, that in the rhetoric in italics above (from AEI or Pew, too?...I didn't find it on the link to the event) that there is mention of fraud, election officials being swamped, rolls being inefficient, and possibilities for error. It says nothing of what I think might be the much larger problem: the gap in registration between various demographic groups that many academics have shown is due to the structure of registration policies. So....if this is all even-handed....why not mention that well studied issue? (And this isn't the only place where it hasn't been adressed.) Or would that chase some people away? : )

    Hopefully, I can get to watch the videos later. My invitation to the event must have been lost in the mail. :(

  • Yes, my "invitation" comment was tongue-in-cheek. I hope to watch the presentation later this week and I do need to catch up on the more recent writings. Overall, your post above is much more moderate than what I read in the earlier posting on "conventional wisdom."

    Regarding the self-servingness: It may be true that leaders and activists in both parties think a more representative voting population favors Dems (note, however, that not all academic researchers agree), but it is not clear that we should just equate this with the following: "Oh well, both sides are playing games! It all balances out!"

    The bottom line is that many of the ID polices that are being pushed most aggressively by the GOP are for restrictions that are not necessary for security. Wouldn't you agree? Thus, it is hard to see the comparability of these policies, and what remains is partisan interest.

    It is true that the majority of states have bungled NVRA implementation under leadership from both parties. But states did implement the NVRA in assistance agencies fairly well for the first two years or so. And they do it well after court settlements. So it can be done. It's really more a matter of enforcement and organizational "stove-piping" between election officials and agency officials, which is not a partisanly driven problem. Nonetheless, in cases where there was explicit resistance to the Act in the states, and specifically to the assistance agency portion of the Act, this resistance largely came from the GOP. Back then, however, it was the "states' rights" and "unfunded mandate" mantra. Of course, there were some GOP members that supported the NVRA fully, but I don't recall any Dem leadership aggressively fighting the law. And the previous administration's DOJ didn't come forward to enforce it when given explicit evidence of non-compliance.

    Thanks!

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