Much of the griping during this year's general election had to do with the voter registration process. Republicans and Sen. John McCain inveighed against voter fraud and accused the liberal-leaning ACORN of "destroying the fabric of democracy" after the group submitted a registration form for a Disney character. Democrats charged "voter suppression" in states that required exact agreement between voter registration forms and Social Security or driver's license data.
The problems arose because our old system of state-by-state registration rules — some of which appear designed for a mail system via pony express — is outmoded and frankly retains vestiges of our racist past. We need to follow the lead of at least 24 other countries and adopt a system of automatic and permanent voter registration.
This is what a country that wants to encourage every eligible voter to vote would do. Now let's see if we are that kind of country.
Current problems with voter registration would largely disappear if the states or federal government were responsible for registering every citizen who qualified.
First, there would no longer be a need for third-party voter registration drives. And that would eliminate the issue of paid gatherers padding their results by, say, signing up new voters out of the phone book or out of a children's cartoon.
Second, the problem of redundant, phony and illegal alien registrations that gum up the operations of elections officials would be sharply curtailed.
And when registrations emanate directly from government records, other perennial problems go away, such as the "no match" situation when a voter's identification and registration are slightly different, e.g., using "William" on one and "Bill" on the other.
But if the pragmatic arguments don't sway, perhaps the moral ones will. Holding on to the current voter registration system is like cleaving to a relic of our disgraced history. The requirement of voter registration began in the late 19th century as a way to tamp down the votes of "undesirables." In the North that was immigrant newcomers, and in the South it was freed slaves and their progeny.
Beyond the standard literacy tests and poll taxes, Southern counties invented a host of gordian techniques for suppressing African-American registration, including requiring blacks to guess how many bubbles were in a bar of soap.
Add to our shame that voter registration is still being used as an obstacle, especially for low-income and less educated voters — who tend to move more frequently and must continually reregister.
Then there is the length of time between registration and the election. While eight states allow registration and voting on the same day, 21 states, including Florida, cut off registration on Oct. 6. We can send money around the world in the blink of an eye, but it apparently takes weeks of lead time for a voter to get into a database. Ridiculous.
One of the trickiest aspects of universal registration is how to compile the records. A proposal by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law suggests that states use drivers' license databases coupled with income tax and other public records to aggregate eligible voters.
It may be complicated initially, but this can be done if there is the political will. I recall that when my brother turned 18 years old in 1981 he received a letter from the Selective Service telling him to register for a potential draft. And that was in the days of punch card computing.
It seems to me that if the federal government can track down all of the country's males who turn 18, it wouldn't take much to add females for the purpose of building an electoral database.
The new Democratic majorities in Congress and a Democrat in the White House make this move all the more feasible. Despite the large turnout in the last election, there are still 64-million unregistered voters in the country. Universal registration needs to be tried.