People who are registered to vote determine the issues at stake. But when it comes to voter registration, a fundamental element of a functioning democracy, the United States trails its Western counterparts by a long shot.
Only 70 percent of eligible voters registered in the last general election, compared with 96 percent in Australia, 91 percent in Germany and 93 percent in Canada. According to a poll by the Pew Research center, registered voters placed the economy and terrorism as their priority issues for the 2016 election. Climate change and LGBTQ rights didn't even make the top ten. It's important to remember that registered voters shape the public debate, so important issues were ignored because the registered population didn't make them a priority
To try to combat such low numbers, voting rights activists, mostly Democrats but also non-partisan advocacy groups in the U.S. have pushed for automatic registration in states such as California and Oregon to allow voters to simply register when, for example, they apply for a new driver's license. Republicans, in opposition, are fiercely against voting reform. And for good reason: Making registration easier would primarily empower likely left-leaning voters – minorities, young people, and low-income families. As of now, 42.7 percent of vote-eligible Latinos, 39.3 percent of vote-eligible Millennials, 30.6 percent of vote-eligible African-Americans and 32.5 percent of unmarried women are unregistered. And let's not forget about the six million Americans who can't vote because of a felony conviction.
Officially, Republicans claim that automatic and online registration methods fuel voter fraud, enabling millions of undocumented immigrants to cast a ballot. The Trump administration even launched a commision supposedly addressing voter fraud, largely seen as completely unnecessary and more of an insidious tool for purging non supporters from voting rolls. But electoral strategy aside, America's voter registration system – one that places the burden of registration entirely on voters – seems to do nothing short of eroding the country's democracy.
To figure out why America falls so miserably behind and what can be done about it, we took a look at the nature of voter registration systems in countries with significantly higher voter participation rates.
Voting in Australia is compulsory. Last year, according to a spokesperson from the country's electoral commission, Australia recorded a whopping 96 percent registration rate. . The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) promotes enrollment in the run-up to federal elections via widespread advertising and public relations campaigns. The AEC also organizes a week-long registration outreach in high school and universities during orientation week so young voters can register and update their addresses.
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Australia also recently introduced pre-registration, or "provisional enrollment", which allows 16- and 17-year-olds to register with the AEC. "They will not be able to actually vote until they are 18, but as soon as they do turn 18, they are already on the electoral roll," Phil Diak, the AEC's director of external relations, told VICE Impact.
Through what it calls "direct enrolment", the AEC collects the addresses of people eligible to register to vote (Australian citizens aged 18+) from trusted third parties such as the state-level government's road traffic authorities, the Department of Human Services (which collects data regarding government social security payment recipients) or the Australian Tax Office, and uses it to perform an enrolment transaction.
"If a person's details can be confirmed through a verification process, they will be directly enrolled or have their address updated on the roll without having to perform a transaction themselves," Diak said.
Data-matching - efforts by the AEC to flag addresses likely to contain unregistered voters or voters whose information needs to be updated - and correspondence also contributes to maintaining the accuracy of the electoral roll.
Canada has a decentralized system of government and, like Australia, is a federal country. However, unlike Australia voting is not mandatory. Yet Canada's registration rate before the last general election stood at 92.7 percent.
America's neighbor to the north does a much better job at adding voters to voter rolls and pre-registering members of the electorate. While provinces maintain their own voter rolls, the Federal government aggregates data Elections Canada, the federal election authority, identifies unregistered voters as well as newly eligible ones. It relies on 40 provincial government agencies such as local departments of motor vehicles to update its voter database. Coordination between provinces also allows voters who move to remain on the rolls. For example, a voter who moves from British Columbia to Ontario will be automatically added to local and provincial rolls in Ontario and have his new voter information updated for the next federal election.
America's neighbor to the north does a much better job at adding voters to voter rolls and pre-registering members of the electorate.
"Between elections, we have data sharing partnerships with provincial and territorial electoral agencies who share updated lists with us (and us with them)," John Enright, Elections Canada's spokesperson, told VICE Impact. "And with federal partners like the Canada Revenue Agency and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and provincial data from drivers bureaus and civil registries,"
In Quebec , the provincial health insurance agency sends listings to local election offices with information about all citizens that will turn 18 within the next six months. Voters then receive an email saying they were automatically registered.
In the weeks leading up to a federal election, voter information cards (postcard-sized mailouts) are sent to all registered voters telling them where and when to cast their ballots on election day.
"We also send reminder cards to all households in the country at an election. The reminder cards are sent to addresses and not individuals to remind electors who might not be registered that they need to act," Enright said.
Most government forms feature an optional checkbox for eligible voters to share their information with Elections Canada. For example, citizens filing federal income tax forms are given the option to update their address and status with federal election authorities.
Unlike the United States, Canada has also introduced same-day registration, allowing eligible voters who haven't registered to do so at the polls.
Germany's voter registration rate recently peaked at 91 percent. It accomplished this by strictly maintaining a civil registry, which is overseen at the local level. The information contained in these records is then shared with local election authorities, which in turn maintain permanent voter rolls that are constantly updated based on information provided by the larger civil registry. This kind of efficiency unfortunately does not seem to happen in the U.S.
Germany's voter registration rate recently peaked at 91 percent.
Election officials take the names from the current civil registry to create a voter list. This way, new voters in Germany are automatically registered and their information is automatically updated based on data provided periodically. Germans who are eighteen or older on voting day automatically receive a notification card before any election in which they are eligible to vote
Until 1998, registration was the voter's responsibility in France. But that year, the French government passed a law creating the "Journée Défense et Citoyenneté" (Defense and Citizenship Day), a compulsory, day-long program replacing the former mandatory national military service draft.
18-year-olds are meant to take part in the program to learn about national defense and engage with citizenship and civic matters. Attendees' information is collected and shared with local election authorities, which in-turn adds them to voter rolls. Virtually all voters who turned 18 after 1998 have been automatically registered.
Record numbers of voters (600,000) registered on deadline day (May 22nd) before this year's General Election. 72 percent of those voters who registered at the last minute were aged between 18 and 34. This surge is attributed to the recent launch of an online registration system, which allows new voters to enroll simply by providing their name, address, date of birth and National Insurance number:
""Being able to register to vote online has made the process quicker than ever and this helped contribute to thousands of people applying on the deadline day. The electoral registration system must continue to modernise and we believe further enhancements can be made to the website that will highlight if someone has already submitted an application to register" Craig Westwood, Director of Communications at the Electoral Commission, told VICE Impact.
In 2014, the government introduced Individual Electoral Registration, a system aimed at increasing the accuracy of the register and verifying the accuracy of voters' identity claims. "This initiative will help voters gain greater trust in the legitimacy and fairness of our elections." notes Westwood.
The experience of these other democracies should inspire America to break from its voter-initiated system and assume a more proactive role in growing and updating the pool of eligible voters. Those wishing to cast a ballot in Australia, Canada, France and Great Britain faced similar challenges until their governments decided to make registration easier. There are many ways to redesign registration systems. Some countries mentioned above rely on civil registries, others emphasize data-sharing or voter outreach campaigns. American policymakers may find certain methods more desirable than others or better suited to their country's federal system. But one thing is certain, if President Trump really wants to pursue an America First policy, this issue needs to be at the top of the list.
VICE Impact is committed to getting more people registered leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. We are working with Democracy Works' TurboVote challenge, a leading digital voter registration initiative, and grassroots organizations across the country to increase voter registration and turnout in the United States. Register to vote above.