Voter Registration Is Voter Suppression: Low Turnout by Design in the USA

Voter Registration Lowers Turnout, Voter SuppressionDuring 2016’s nominally democratic primaries, the voter-rolls – i.e. the lists of people who get to vote – were afflicted by a slew of mysterious errors and illegal purges in a number of states. As a result, millions who registered as democrats were unable to vote. Millions more independents (who make up a majority of eligible voters) found they were disenfranchised in states where deadlines to register passed months before anyone even knew who the candidates were. New York, for example, excluded a mind-blowing 2.9 million active voters from the primaries for not registering by a deadline 7 months beforehand, as well as another 200,000 whom NYC election officials would later admit were illegally purged from voter-rolls. The worst voter suppression, however, is neither the purges nor the arbitrary placement of deadlines but the fact that the US forces its citizens to register before they can vote in the first place.

The US Voter-Registration System:
A Costly Sham to Suppress Voters

Managing a good elections system is no easy task and the right solutions often differ depending on type of government, population size and distribution, transportation issues, funding, and so on. Because of this complexity, election-related problems can sometimes be much harder to solve than it may seem at first. The US voter-registration system is not one of those problems. In fact, the US is the only developed nation — as well as one of the only countries in the world — that still foists the responsibility for voter registration on its citizens.

Voter Turnout in the USA: Tragedy or Farce?

The estimated US voting-age population during the 2016 primaries was around 250 million¹. Records show that almost 17 million voters picked the democratic candidate and a bit over 14 million voters picked the republican candidate. That means…

\mathtt{\frac{14,015,993}{250,055,734} = 0.056051 \text{ or }\approx5.6\%} \mathtt{\frac{16,917,853}{250,055,734} = 0.06765 \text{ or }\approx6.8\%} \mathtt{5.6 + 6.8 = 12.4\%}

…that just 12.4% of 250 million voting-age US-Americans determined the two options that the rest of the nation had to choose from. Even if all the voters in both primaries are combined…

\mathtt{\frac{(30,633,131 + 31,183,841)}{250,055,734} = 0.24721 \text{ or }\approx24.7\%}

…the result is still fewer than ¼ of US voting-age citizens. This is the predictable result of such a system.

Voter Suppression US, Graphic: "Don't forget to register 6 months in advance, take the whole day off to wait in line for 6 hours in your gerrymandered district and hope you haven't been purged from the registry!"In addition to the illegally purged and the millions regularly disenfranchised by other registration errors, the system is designed to exclude the majority of US-Americans registered as independents from the primaries. ​In this context, 12.4% is actually right on par. Even if there were no other problems (which there are), the fact that registration keeps most of the country from partaking in ‘democracy’ gets pretty darn close to single-handedly defeating the whole purpose of holding elections in the first place.

How Voter Registration Works
(& Why It Doesn’t in the US)

Maintaining some kind of list or registry of voters is one of the core features needed to manage elections² at a national level. As a FairVote research report on the topic explains:

Clean and complete voter rolls are [a] vital tool in every democracy: by confirming that citizens have met all the eligibility requirements and that each eligible citizen is registered to vote once and only once, the voter registration process ensures the validity of the vote and helps to confer legitimacy on the electoral process.

Before the digital age, there was a time when the best way to keep an up-to-date list of voters was to require everyone to fill out and submit paperwork to various regional authorities every few years. Processing millions of paper forms was a grueling yet necessary part of managing a national elections system. This type of system lead to a lot of errors, which is just what happens when vast, mostly unsupervised networks of underpaid clerks are asked to somehow turn a whole population’s handwritten submissions into an up-to-date national registry of voters.

Thanks to today’s informational architecture, such arduous and inaccurate systems are now used in only a handful of pseudo-democracies that continue to spurn the advances of the 21st century. Like Burundi. And the USA.

Opt-In Self-Registration vs. Automatic Voter Registration

Infographic, Low US Voter Turnout, Voter RegistrationIn addition to reducing time and effort, modern automatic registries produce more accurate results. Digital registries can be updated automatically using data that is already being collected by civil registries like birth and death certificates or national healthcare records and social security. Whether conducted in the US or internationally, an overwhelming body of research shows that automatic systems are far more accurate compared to the self-initiated, opt-in US system.

And as if having an accurate voter-registry were not enough of an upside, automatic universal registration of eligible citizens is a lot cheaper, too. According to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network³:

Concerning the cost of voter lists, a main lesson learned from previous research (and still relevant) is that permanent registries promote both transparency and cost-effectiveness, particularly when they are periodically updated with corrections, additions and deletions without obliging voters to re-register.

The system of voter-registration used in Canada, for example, costs 12 times less per-registered voter than the US system.

Modern Automatic Registration Works

Modern systems — like those nearly every stable country in the world use — result in much higher rates of registration among voting-age populations. Study after study (after study) has shown that wherever government assumes responsibility for registration by automatically adding voters as they come of age or become citizens, turnout is higher and more citizens are registered. For example, about 90% of the voting-age population (VAP) is registered to vote in Canada, 91% in Indonesia, 93% in France, and 97% in Japan.

And the US? According to the 2014 census, 64.6% or just under 2/3rds.

The Self-Initiated, Opt-In System Is Just Awful
(& US Public Officials Damn-Well Know It)

Comic about US party affiliation, Sidewalk Bubblegum
Stolen without shame or regret from Sidewalk Bubblegum

It has been well-known for decades that the US voter-registration system is one of the glaringly obvious reasons that US elections are #1 at having the worst voter-turnout in the developed world. It was known 25 years ago when embarrassingly low voter-turnout forced congress to pass the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that created a standardized form and required states to offer registration at certain public offices, such as the DMV. While some improvement is better than none, it was clear to a 2001 commission chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford that the NVRA had only scratched the surface of the problem. The commission bluntly concluded:

“The registration laws in force throughout the United States are among the world’s most demanding … [and are ] one reason why voter turnout in the United States is near the bottom of the developed world.”

Despite the success of the US campaign to spread ‘democracy’ all over Africa and the Middle East in the 17 years since, thus far the same politicians seem to be incapable of bringing it home.

Not Abolishing Self-Registration Is Voter Suppression

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - Voter Registration Is Voter Suppression: Low Turnout by Design in the USAIf the failure to fix the US registration system was only due to congress being a birdbrained horde of nitwits who genuinely were unable to find a workable solution, such inaction might be forgivable — but the truth is more disheartening.​ There are too many alternatives that are so well-known and readily available that it would be ludicrous to believe more than a few of them give a damn about the integrity of US elections or about democracy itself for that matter. Anyone who can use a search engine can verify that plenty of far better systems are currently in use all over the world.

It is a fact that self-registration results in lower voter-turnout compared to modern registration systems and it is also a fact that automatic registries are more accurate, easier to maintain, and cheaper. And in light of these facts, a person has to wonder — why would elected officials be so resistant to fixing voter registration — ? Why would they not implement any of the pre-tested, ready-made, more accurate systems at a fraction of the cost? Is it because US politicians want less accuracy? More difficulty? Or higher costs? Or is it that they want fewer voters participating in the political process?

What seems more likely?

In solidarity,
John Laurits

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Note¹ Despite what some claim, the voting-age population (VAP) is the best measurement to use for comparing elections internationally whereas voting-eligible population (VEP) is problematic for a lot of of reasons. To illustrate why, consider that until 2015 women were not eligible to vote in Saudi Arabia and, if VEP was used to calculate turnout %, the data would suggest that Saudi ‘democracy’ was equal to other democracies that allow both sexes to vote because women wouldn’t be counted as part of VEP. This allows states to arbitrarily define the denominator and that is big problem from a scientific perspective.
Note² The phrase “national elections” is used intentionally here because a voter registry is only a core feature of national elections but not of elections, voting, or democracy at large. In a better world — that is, a world without nations, borders, or nationality — elections may still be held without any need for a registry. The only fundamental reason for registration is to distinguish citizens from non-citizens, which this author thinks is a very silly thing that humans will eventually outgrow.
Note³ The “past research” here refers to decades of studies conducted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral assistance, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Elections Canada, the National Electoral Institute of Mexico, the International Foundation for Elections Systems, the Carter Center, the UN Electoral Assistance Division, and the UN Development Programme.

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I am a conservative and even I can recognize Mr. Laurits is right about this. Keep fighting the good fight young man.

Leon Stephens

The substance and structure of your article are, as usual, solid and good. However, please allow me to comment on form and detail. In the first two sentences you use the word “democratic” and “democrats”, spelled thus. Apparently the second usage refers to members of or voters aligned with the Democratic Party. But because you obstinately refuse to capitalize Democrat and Republican when referring to those two political parties – this is a question of linguistic convention, which helps us communicate, not any sort of respect for those parties: I don’t respect them any more than you do – one wonders whether with the expression “nominally democratic primaries” you mean democratic or undemocratic, or if you’re referring to the Democratic Party here as well, illogical though it would be. Do you write “americans” or “Americans”? The second, right? And why? because they are the… Read more »

C.A. Matthews

Fantastic article! I also believe our voting system was designed with voter suppression in mind. If those in charge truly wanted to know public opinion, they would have instituted automatic registration and other voting improvements long ago. Their lack of leadership on this issue is telling.