Opinion

Allow procrastinators to vote, too

America desperately needs more voters. Election Day registration will help.

By

A presidential candidate supported by fewer than 1 in 3 voting-age citizens, might be considered a laughingstock in many countries. In the United States, we know him by a different name: President Obama.

Despite winning more than twice as many electoral votes as John McCain, the fact remains that only about 30 percent of adult citizens actually voted for our nation's president. And 2008 was a notably high turnout election year.

In 1992, a quarter of the country voted Bill Clinton into office. Just 26 percent of Americans sent Richard Nixon on a path toward infamy. In other words, nearly 90 million of the 120 million voting-age Americans in 1968 did not vote for Nixon. Silent majority, indeed.

Though seeking 100 percent voter turnout is a fool's errand, we cannot be content with missing the bullseye of electoral legitimacy when we have so many arrows left in our quiver. The challenge is obvious: Increase voter turnout.

One underutilized tool is Election Day registration, or EDR. In eight states, including Idaho, Iowa, Maine, and Minnesota, EDR has helped boost voter turnout by about 10 percentage points.

It's no coincidence that the five states with the highest percentage voter turnout in 2008 used EDR. The fact that it benefits underrepresented groups the most, including minorities, lower-income, and young voters, is icing on top.

Yet more than 40 states have declined the opportunity, citing concern about administrative burden or fear of voter-fraud. However, according to numerous studies and interviews with election officials, Election Day registration is manageable and has not led to increased fraud or problems at the polls.

This brings us to a simple question: Is it right (or even necessary) to require citizens to register up to a month before they cast a vote?

Imagine if we applied the same "plan your life four weeks in advance" logic elsewhere. Haven't bought your Christmas presents by Thanksgiving? No celebration this year. Didn't pay your taxes by mid-March? Pray you don't get an audit. Black Friday shoppers and H&R Block employees aside, some events are simply not in the forefront of our minds a month out. Surely we cannot blame the millions of New Englanders who paid closer attention to the Red Sox's historic World Series run in 2004 than a looming registration deadline in early October.

Now some might argue that those who cannot be bothered to comply with a fixed registration period between elections do not deserve the right to vote. The sentiment is understandable.

But consider this: We haven't employed religious tests for centuries in order to determine voter eligibility nor literacy tests for decades, and we've never had an official intelligence test. Unless we are prepared to go down these paths and only allow Episcopalian Mensa members to choose our leaders, why do we tolerate a procrastination test?

Even media coverage is stacked against giving citizens an incentive to register early. A 2006 University of Wisconsin study showed that nearly half of all local news stories about the mid-term election came in the final week of the campaign. By this time only two states without EDR still allow citizens to register. Can we blame those who forget?

Beyond punishing the less attentive, there is an administrative debate over EDR. Processing new registrants in one day is no simple task, but it does eliminate two significant burdens: a predeadline surge of registrations and provisional ballots.

Specifically, Election Day registration renders provisional ballots obsolete because registration irregularities can be fixed by simply registering again. In addition, while EDR inevitably results in more people showing up at the polls, having separate lines for registration and voting has prevented major delays for voters. With little added expense and no evidence of voter fraud, the costs of EDR are minimal.

To be clear, Election Day registration is no cure-all for our election woes. Modest improvements in voter turnout will not give the legitimacy of 150 million votes to our next leader.

However, a lack of perfection is no reason to avoid taking a step closer to a more democratic electoral system. Spreading EDR beyond the current eight states not only makes sense on an administrative and a fairness level; it will also bring millions of new voters to the polls.

Scott Keyes is an undergraduate student at Stanford University, where he is majoring in political science.

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