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A Bipartisan Consensus on Voter Registration?

10:26 AM, Sep 1, 2009 • By EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH
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Forget health care, the Iraq war, and economic stimulus -- "the big issue of [the] 2008 [election] was voter registration." So says Doug Chapin, the director of election initiatives for the PEW Center on the States, which yesterday hosted a meeting introducing the new 13-person Committee to Modernize Voter Registration.

The Committee is co-chaired Trevor Potter and Marc E. Elias who are, respectively, the former general counsel to the McCain campaign in 2000 and 2008 and the former general counsel to the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004. More recently, Mr. Elias served as the lead lawyer for Senator Al Franken who prevailed in the recount for the Minnesota race.

Mr. Elias and Mr. Potter know, from their on the ground experience working campaigns, that the current paper-based, manually-processed voter registration system is a relic of the 19th century and needs to be updated to reflect American society in the 21st century. In other words, it needs to reflect a highly mobile, efficiency-driven, cost-saving society. The solution? The committee argues that the voter registration system needs to be automated in every state.

Voter registration has always been a hotly politicized issue. Any effort to strengthen voter ID laws is met with cries of "disenfranchisement" from Democrats, while Republican are quick to denounce the efforts of third party registration efforts as "fraud." Despite their political differences, Potter and Elias can see eye to eye solving the problem of voter registration, even if they came to that solution from different paths.

For Potter, the infamous third party registration efforts of ACORN "epitomized and encapsulated the problems we ended up facing" in terms of voter registration -- problems like Donald Duck registering to vote. Potter explains that when there are people eligible to vote but not registered, then groups like ACORN have a financial and political incentive to register as many people as possible. Regardless of their eligibility to vote, the more people an ACORN official registers, the more likely that official is to keep his job. Mr. Potter champions an automated voter registration system for its improved integrity and accuracy, among other reasons.

Coming at it from a different angle, Elias explains that the clumsy paper-based system prevented thousands of eligible voters from being able to vote, or from having their votes counted. Elias points to the fact that in the recent Minnesota debacle, absentee voters were sent ballots that either contained voter registration cards or did not contain voter registration cards. The only problem was that some registered voters received voter registration cards, while some unregistered voters did not, creating confusion and error for the voter and for the county officials who processed the ballots.

Another problem was that absentee voters were asked to put their ballots in a secret envelope, and put that secret envelope in an outer envelope that was mailed to the appropriate county -- but certain voters mistakenly placed their voter registration cards in the secret envelope, which election officials did not open for fear of compromising the secrecy of the ballot. Those votes, in turn, were not initially counted.

Potter and Elias agree that modernizing the voter registration system will save states money in the long run, though they did not quite know how much states would save, nor how much automating voter registration would cost. But according to the PEW Center on the States, when Canada modernized its system in 1996, it cost $13.3 million, but ultimately saved the nation $150 million.

The Committee to Modernize Voter Registration plans to work with Congress to propose a bipartisan bill that federally mandates an automated voter registration system. If they start now, legislation may be enacted by the 2012 elections. According to PEW, Senator Chuck Schumer has indicated his interest in supporting such a bill, and Potter notes that there's "potential interest" on the GOP side, though he would not say whether he was in touch with his old boss, Senator John McCain, about such a bill.

While the Constitution says that elections are run by states and localities unless Congress chooses to intervene, Elias and Potter are emphatic that their initiative is not a federal takeover of state-run elections. Rather, federal data -- like the selective service list, or immigration lists, or social security lists -- will be resources that states could use to automatically register eligible voters. Then, voters can opt-out of the system if they do not wish to be registered -- "the presumption is you're in, not out," says Elias.

According to PEW and the committee, the presumption that you're out is costing states millions of dollars and costing voters their right to vote, like in the case of Florida in 2000 and Minnesota in 2009. While Potter and Elias' plan to streamline voter registration sounds good on paper, in the coming months, they'll need to solidify their proposal if it is to gain traction.