Modernize Florida's voting system

Published Jan. 25, 2012

In 2012, you can use your iPhone to deposit a check or track your fantasy team, but registering to vote is still stuck in the 19th century. Once again, Florida is in the middle of the war on voting, passing an election law last year that will make it even harder for tens of thousands of citizens to vote.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., heads to Tampa this week to conduct a hearing on this controversial law, which is the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging it violates both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. But while we replay this tired fight, no one is talking about how to fix this antiquated system in the long term. It is time for both sides to come together to improve voter registration to make it more accurate, secure and voter-friendly.

The law has triggered the third dispute in six years over severe restrictions on community organizations that help people register to vote in Florida. And this is the third time Florida has taken a step backward instead of forward in terms of enhancing voter registration.

In recent years, community-based voter registration drives have played a vital role in our democracy. They assisted nearly 10 million to register to vote nationally in 2004, and have been critical in reaching groups under-represented on the voter rolls. For example, Hispanic and African-American voters register through voter registration drives at approximately twice the rate of white voters. The law's regulation of voter registration drives is so restrictive, however, that groups such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have suspended their voter registration activity in the state. Instead of this serial regulation of groups that help register voters, Florida could be modernizing its registration system to ensure more citizens are registered to vote and reduce burdens on election officials.

Florida, which already suffers from low voter registration and turnout, can ill afford additional barriers to voting. In 2004, Florida ranked 33rd in the nation with 72 percent of eligible citizens registered to vote. By 2010, the state had dropped to 38th, with only 63 percent of eligible citizens registered.

To reverse this trend, Florida should use existing technologies to automatically and permanently register citizens to vote, provide for fail-safe correction of voter information at polling places, and allow expanded methods of registering, such as online registration. There is simply no reason to make people navigate a cumbersome, 19th-century model of voter registration when there are more efficient, cost-effective and reliable methods available.

In a modernized voter registration system, information contained in state and federal databases — such as the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, public assistance agencies, state tax authorities, the Selective Service and the INS database of naturalized citizens — can be sorted and sent to election officials to allow verification of age and citizenship, correction of duplicate registrations, and automatic voter registration. Polling places can be equipped with mobile access to the electronic voter database so that on Election Day any eligible voter who did not appear on the roll, or appeared inaccurately, could immediately correct her registration and vote a regular ballot, rather than being turned away or forced to vote a provisional ballot.

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States that have made such efforts to modernize voter registration have enjoyed increased voter turnout and cost savings. In 2008, the five states with the highest voter turnout all employed fail-safe voter correction procedures. Maricopa County, Ariz., reduced registration errors and recouped its start-up costs for an automatic registration system in a single election — saving $450,000.

Florida has every reason to do the same. As one of the earliest states to automate the federal "motor voter" law by sharing motor vehicle information electronically with election officials, it already has the tools to fully modernize registration. Florida could easily expand this program to remove the needless barriers that prevent millions from voting. Supporters of the law are presenting a false choice when they insist restrictions on voter registration activities are necessary to ensure secure and accurate voter rolls. Voter registration modernization can enhance security, accuracy, and increase the rate of registration.

If Florida lawmakers are serious about these goals, this is their opportunity to offer a real solution to the problems in the current system.

Jonathan Brater serves as counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.