It is time for the states to start taking the primary responsibility for registering voters and maintaining those registrations as voters' personal information and addresses change. Never has that been more clear than after the recent battles over voter registration with conservatives claiming voter fraud and progressives battling voter registration barriers. Furthermore, the recent implementation of state-wide voter databases created an infrastructure that empowers policymakers to remove the current burden on voters and move toward a twenty-first century voting system that facilitates participation.

There are a diversity of methods for moving toward a more proactive voter registration system. The ultimate goal is a system that reaches every eligible voter, yet there are also a number of incremental steps that make positive change a realistic goal in almost every state. Components of such a system could include:

  • Government Databases: States can achieve near-universal registration by actively registering every citizen for whom sufficient records exist in state agency databases. This involves setting up a process for transferring the pertinant information from agency records to the state election administrator, verifying the information, adding them to the voter rolls, and giving notice and a chance to amend the registration to voters. New York lawmakers introduced a bill in 2007 that would direct the State Board of Elections to register every resident by using motor vehicle and tax records.
  • Extending NVRA: While the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires that voter registration be offered at motor vehicle, public assistance and other state agencies, many states are in poor compliance and this is an area where huge improvement can be made quickly and cheaply. States with good compliance can easily go several steps further. First by increasing the number of agencies providing voter registration, including schools, and also by incorporating voter registration directly into the process of submitting personal information to a government agency. Allowing the information to be used for registration if the person checks off that they are eligible and choose to register. Automatic registration builds on the NVRA model to actively bring people onto the registration rolls.
  • Portable Registration: Many people who were once registered are unaware that their registration lapsed due to a move or change in their personal information such as a name change. Using government data on citizens, states can maintain registrations automatically by updating voter rolls when voter information changes. These steps would help thousands of voters maintain their registrations. When implementing this reform, though, legislators must also insist on best practices safeguards which ensure that voters maintain control of where they are registered and require verification of an address change from more than one source.

No state is currently taking full advantage of the resources at their disposal to maintain registrations when voters move (Oregon tracks changes, but their job is straghtforward because of the state's mail ballot elections). However, Minnesota took an important first step in 2008 when they passed HB 1546, a law to establish automatic re-registration for all voters who move anywhere within the state. Now, when a voter changes their residential address with the United States Postal Service, instead of merely de-registering the voter, the election official notifies the jurisdiction into which the person moved and has them added to the voter roll for their new residence.

Other important strategies for increasing the percentage of registered voters are promoting youth registration by allowing pre-registration at 16 and primary voting at 17 (for those who will be 18 by the general election). Internet registration is also an important part of a comprehensive, proactive voter registration system.