Liberal Lawyer's Group Wants Same-Day, Nationalized Voter Registration

By Matthew Cover | November 6, 2008 | 8:35pm EST

Election Day '08 -- at the polls. (AP photo)

( – Tuesday’s record 138 million voter turnout wasn’t good enough for a group of liberal lawyers, who say that voter registration is so flawed that the U.S. should adopt election-day, “at-the-polls” voter registration.
What’s more, all voter registration should be done by the federal government, like it is in Canada, they say.
A panel of university law professors convened by the American Constitution Society of Law and Policy – the liberal answer to the Federalist Society -- criticized current methods of voter registration Thursday, praising the government-run efforts of foreign countries and suggesting that such an approach is needed in America.
The lawyers, speaking with reporters by phone said that Tuesday’s election had been relatively problem-free, but some “major issues” remained, especially with voter registration.
“We do have some serious problems, especially with voter registration,” said Daniel Tokaji, law professor and associate director of the Election Law Project at Ohio State University.
Everything from registration deadlines 30 days before an election to the inability of the homeless to register and vote were evidence of problems, the lawyers said.
“The reform that I would most like to see is moving, either at the federal level or in more states, to election-day registration,” he said. “It reduces reliance on provisional ballots (and) there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that election-day registration increases fraud.”
Other experts expressed their doubts about the need for voter registration altogether, saying it wasn’t required by the Constitution.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires states to implement voter registration systems,” said Allison Hayward, a George Mason University law professor. “If a state decided that registration is a pain (and eliminates it), nobody has the ability at the federal level to say that that’s an inappropriate policy decision.”
Takaji criticized the way registration is being conducted, saying that its privatized nature leads to claims of registration fraud. He suggested that a federalized approach would be more efficient.
“This (issue) relates to the complaints we’ve heard from the Republican side about phony voter registration forms,” he said. “As long as we have a system that depends on private registration – which ours does – we are going to get some errant voter registration forms.”
Takaji suggested a system similar to one used in Canada, where the national government is completely responsible for registering citizens to vote.
“We could imagine a different model – one more like what Canada has – where the (federal) government takes affirmative responsibility for registering every eligible voter, and they have 93 percent of eligible citizens registered, as opposed to 68 percent here.”
“As long as we have (a system) that relies so heavily on private registration efforts, some of the problems we’ve seen in recent weeks and months are inevitable,” he added.
Pamela Karlan, a professor at Stanford Law School in California, agreed, saying that a federal voter registration effort would bring the United States “in line with the rest of the world.”
“Almost every other advanced democracy in the world puts the responsibility of registering citizens on the government,” she said.
Karlan cited efforts to end Jim Crow-era segregation laws as proof that government-driven registration is the best option.
“If you look back to 1965, the South was not registering black people back then, (so) federal examiners would go and register people and put them on the voting rolls.  In the space of two years, we registered more black voters -- federal government registrars registered more black voters -- in the South than had (been) registered since Reconstruction,” she explained.
“We know that his can be done if the political and governmental will is put behind it,” Karlan said. “As long as we’re going to try to do this on the cheap, you get the registration system you’re willing to pay for.”

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