Voter registration is a fundamental component of our election ecosystem that requires regular maintenance to be effective. As Congress debates the For The People Act, or H.R.1, a bill that would dramatically alter the American voting experience, it is fair to ask whether those changes would be an improvement everywhere.
Overlaying federal mandates on top of a decentralized electoral system risks stressing already under-resourced jurisdictions, resulting in voter confusion, impossible-to-meet federal guidelines, and potential disenfranchisement. Most of H.R. 1’s voter registration mandates are good policy in line with recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Elections. However, enacting them at the federal level without proper resources would create an administrative burden that will diminish any realized benefits.
H.R. 1 addresses several key areas of voter registration, but as laid out below, could address certain aspects better.
Online Voter Registration
Online voter registration is not new. In fact, 40 states and the District of Columbia already have it in some format. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended it in 2014, and BPC recommended it in 2014 and 2020. In 2021, voters expect to electronically transact with the government in a safe and secure manner.
Despite its benefits, H.R. 1 fails to address the lack of requirement to link states’ online voter registration systems to other state databases, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, for near-instant identification verification. This link is vital to securing an election system where administrators can confirm eligibility and avoid issues during the voting process. Overall, online voter registration is a policy all states can, and must, adopt.
Collecting Alternative Contact Information from Voters
H.R. 1 would require the collection of voter email addresses at the time of registration. This seemingly minor change would have outsized benefits by drastically reducing the time it takes for election officials to contact voters.
Currently, many election administrators rely on the U.S. Postal Service for communication with voters. It can be a slow exchange during time-sensitive windows, especially for states that allow ballot envelope curing. BPC endorsed email collection as a more rapid alternative to USPS, with the addendum that personally identifiable information not be publicly disclosable. This minor change—one that Congress can mandate by updating the National Voter Registration Act—would immediately yield better voter outcomes.
Automatic Voter Registration
Automatic voter registration (AVR) has become an unnecessary flashpoint in recent years. H.R. 1 includes a version of AVR consistent with BPC’s recommendation to offer potential voters the ability to opt-out at the point of service, instead of the more passive opt-in registration processes used in most states. Other versions of AVR happen behind the scenes without the individual’s knowledge. We think such a “back-end” AVR system is not possible in all states at current capacity.
In BPC’s view, AVR should simply integrate voter registration into other state point-of-service transactions—like at the DMV or social service agencies—with no option to bypass the voter registration questions without a response from the citizen. This would result in nearly-complete voter rolls, inclusive of all eligible citizens who wish to be included.
H.R. 1 however, does contain at least one concerning AVR requirement. It requires states to perform a one-time “look back” at agency records. What is less clear with this “look back” is what happens to individuals identified as eligible and unregistered, beyond having their information transferred to election administrators. If there is no obvious way to opt out, we fear that ineligible individuals or Americans who do not want to be on the voter rolls will be registered through no fault of their own. . If we make the voter registration process more seamless at the point of service, the “look back” provision is minimally beneficial when compared to the integrity concerns.
Same Day Registration
Same day registration is meant to serve eligible Americans who want to vote on or near Election Day. BPC recommends setting voter registration deadlines as close to Election Day as feasible when considering a state’s mix of voting options.
However, true same day registration—where a voter can register and cast a regular ballot in one transaction—requires a certain level of connectivity at the point of service. By requiring same day registration in all states, H.R. 1 would effectively require a high degree of connectivity at all polling places, which is both an extensive undertaking and a severe security risk. States are appropriately cautious about cybersecurity concerns related to any connectivity to voter rolls to verify voters’ eligibility. It is also doubtful that reliable internet connectivity is possible at all polling places.
If the intention is to offer same day registration and have new registrants cast provisional ballots, it is more attainable , but one that typically leaves voters less satisfied.
Voter List Maintenance
Voter registration must be coupled with reasonable, fair list maintenance procedures. H.R. 1 includes several list maintenance requirements that would have administrative consequences that undermine confidence in our election ecosystem.
Voters are removed from voter lists for a variety of reasons; including self-cancelation or administrative removal due to nonresponse from election officials. Not every list maintenance action is a purge, nor is all list maintenance done to promote the most inclusive voter rolls possible.
Rather than the piecemeal approach of H.R. 1, Congress should engage in a separate, wholesale revamp of the National Voter Registration Act. Short of that, even some of the well-meaning provisions in H.R. 1 would not improve the deficiencies in the voter registration process. For example, H.R. 1 limits what list maintenance actions jurisdictions can take within six months of Election Day. This change—pushed back from the current 90 days—would make it functionally impossible for some states to ever perform maintenance, due to their election schedules, leading to increasingly bloated rolls that become targets for misinformation campaigns.
The provisions against voter caging—sending non-forwardable mail to registered voters and using nonresponse as a reason to push for their removal from the voter rolls—are important. States should be the only ones performing regular maintenance of their voter rolls. With third-party voter caging, some external groups attempt to identify—often inaccurately—which voters are ineligible. These attempts at list integrity are highly partisan and most directly impact voters who interact with the voting process on an infrequent basis. Additionally, these voters may not be looking for non-forwardable mail about their registration status.
Whether federal limits to such activities are wise—or even legal—would be rendered moot if states had clear guidelines for list maintenance and performed it on a regular schedule, giving voters the opportunity to remain on the rolls.
States that have not upgraded the voter-facing options for registration and back-end methods for list-maintenance are doing a disservice to their citizens. H.R. 1, includes numerous reforms that, if implemented by states, would improve the voting experience. However, reforms to voting procedure need bipartisan support for maximum impact, and forcing all these changes at the federal level would not yield the intended benefits. To avoid overwhelming local election jurisdictions with an unattainable, one-size-fits-all approach, states must take the lead on implementing forward-thinking voter registration reforms.
For more from BPC’s Elections Project on election provisions in H.R. 1, see H.R. 1’s Election Security and Integrity Provisions Need Work.