Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Canadian election shows how to run a voter registration system without our problems

Voter registration in the United States is a mess. Because it is the job of the citizen and not the government to keep voter registration information current, it's really up to the political campaigns and other non-government, private organizations to help people register to vote.

Some of these private, transient organizations that pop up every election cycle and then die down again aren't run very well. How can they be without permanent staff to develop expertise? Instead, some of them end up assisting citizens to register to vote several times or turn in incorrect information to the government. The government's role is reactive -- they take and process and attempt to verify any information that they get about a citizen who wishes to be registered. This causes a huge pile of work to come in to the government's office at the last minute, which is inherently inefficient, since no one but the government has an incentive to keep the list of registered voters current and inclusive during non-election seasons. 

Even worse, each county (and we've got almost 3000 of thm in the United States) runs their own elections. They each have different procedures and laws -- some of them vastly different. They each keep their own list of registered voters, so a citizen has to know what obscure government agency of their county to contact in order to verify their registration status and to acquire specific information about voting.

Canada is different. They have one federal agency that handles all voter registration. It's called Elections Canada. Easy, right? Every Canadian citizen can check one easy website to get all the information on voting and the election they need. 

Even better, the government has the job to get people registered to vote. Elections Canada keeps the permanent list of registered voters updated automatically when Canadian citizens tell some other agency of government (like the post office or a federal agency like Revenue or Immigration) that they have a new address or that there's a new 18-year old. 

Finally, if someone isn't on the list of registered voters, they can register to vote on Election Day in Canada. That's in every province (not just in a few states, like in the US).

The federal government in the United States should take over voter registration, using Canada as a model. Every American is entitled to be a voter. They shouldn't have to jump through hoops with some county agency to vote for the President of the United States. And we shouldn't have to rely on temporary organizations popping up to get people registered to vote with their inevitable sloppy work that some will call systemic fraud. The best way to maintain a clean, accurate list of all Americans over 18 and thus eligible to vote is to require the federal government to keep and maintain such a list, using data from the Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service and every other database the government keeps.

Our two nations are both in the middle of a heated federal election. There are hundreds of news stories on the fierce political and legal battles over voter registration in America with litigation and accusations of fraud and suppression. There are not in Canada. They are doing something right to settle the question and task an independent federal agency to compile a trusted list of voters. We should follow their lead.

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