Restore trust in voter rolls

Charges of fraud and suppression undermine confidence in voter registration.

Since the "hanging chad" debacle of 2000, states have worked hard to restore trust in Election Day by updating voting machines. Slowly, but surely, they're making progress. But now, charges of "fraud" and "suppression" in voter registration are kicking up a cloud of controversy – and again endangering voter confidence.

As with financial markets, so with the voting process, the integrity of the system is critical to making it work. Places such as Florida's Palm Beach County may be on their third set of machines in three elections, but at least they're going at their equipment problems until they get it right.

Several high-profile cases this campaign season, though, show that the country also needs to get it right with people.

Republicans are all over an activist group called ACORN, some of whose workers have recorded thousands of fraudulent names during a massive voter registration drive. Bogus ACORN lists turned up in registrar offices in about a dozen states. The FBI is reportedly investigating.

Democrats have their own complaints. In battleground states such as Ohio and Minnesota, they accuse Republicans of voter suppression for questioning names of newly registered voters whose identifying information doesn't match what's in state databases.

As part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, Congress required states to centralize voter lists, which allows voters to check their registration and polling places online. If there's a no-match of new voters with, say, Social Security or driver's license records, states must notify these voters and give them a chance to prove eligibility – but this isn't always carried out.

Four states require election officials to reject no-match registrations. Lawsuits to copy these rules are under way in three other states.

In practice, no-match rejection is a greater threat to voting integrity because common technical mistakes, such as name misspellings, could affect thousands of people. Of over 20,000 failed matches in Florida, for instance, more than three-quarters were due to typos. About 200,000 no-match names are being legally challenged in Ohio – more than the vote by which George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004.

It's more difficult for registration fraud to turn into voter fraud. "Mickey Mouse," as was registered with ACORN, is unlikely to show up at your local polling station. There were only 38 cases of federal prosecutions of illegal voting between 2002 and 2005.

Both the fraud and suppression charges undermine voter confidence. This is not the first time ACORN has come under fire, and it needs to clean up its act. Likewise, state election officials need to solve the no-match problem.

Beyond this, the country should start to debate the idea of "universal voter registration."

In most advanced democracies, governments – not groups such as ACORN – automatically register citizens to vote. It is still up to individuals to exercise this most basic right, but it is not nearly so difficult to get it as in the United States, where 30 percent of Americans are not registered to vote, according to the 2006 Census.

It could be that a rethink of registration may be next on America's to-do list to shore up voter confidence.

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