Strengthening Access in Registration: How to Protect Voting Rights and Improve Participation

By Jack Vanderpump

The voter registration process is crucial to enfranchising all eligible voters, and is the building bloc upon which a democracy realises the fundamental principle of "one person, one vote, one value”. With this in mind, it falls to electoral management bodies to ensure that the voter register is inclusive, accurate and comprehensive, and that its processes are transparent to all stakeholders. However, with the ongoing pandemic, electoral management bodies (EMBs) are presented with a new set of obstacles that make inclusive and extensive registration more difficult, and with restrictions in the use of physical spaces there is an increased risk of disenfranchising members of the electorate, and especially minority groups.

To delve into the issues of voter registration and the challenges thrown up by the ongoing pandemic, the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies and their Electoral Stakeholders’ Network brought together leading experts from across the globe to explore both theory and international best practice. The virtual roundtable’s panel was made up of Benjamin Hovland, Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission; Dr Nasim Zaidi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India; Lalitha Flach, Chief Operating Officer of Elections Ontario; and, Professor Toby James Deputy Director of the Electoral Integrity Project and Co-convenor of the Electoral Management Network

Voter Registration Concepts

Professor James outlined the four key concepts that all EMBs should be conscious of when developing their strategies to improve voter registration: completeness, accuracy, equity and inclusion. EMBs should evaluate their voter registration rolls in regards to their completeness, ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote is included. For many democracies, the issue is raising that number ever closer to 100%. In the UK, the electoral register sits at around 90% complete, but for some democracies this number can be as low as 20%. There is also the problem of overrepresentation though, with one case recording a voter registration roll numbering nearly double the size of the electorate. This highlights another issue that could plague voter registration: accuracy, and whether that is undermined by poor data collection, lack of analysis or intentional foul play. Equity of outcome in registration is also crucial to the integrity of any given election. While there may always be some eligible members of the electorate missing from the voter rolls, it is important to ensure that this isn’t particularly true in certain sections of society. It is therefore the role of EMBs to also ensure that similar levels of registrations are achieved throughout the different sections of society, whether that is across ethnicity, age, gender, disability or other lines. In other words, EMBs need to ensure that their practices are inclusive.

EMBs will also consider issues of citizen convenience, cost efficiency and robustness of the system, but it is perhaps those previous four that are most important to the integrity of voter registration. Professor James examined during his presentation the conditions for achieving a fair and effective registration system. Reflecting on his research, James argued that the democratic extent of the state, its wealth, media impartiality had only moderate implications. However, EMB performance and information about voting procedures were identified as the two biggest determinants for ensuring both accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. To boost completeness, James argues that EMBs should be continuously analysing their voter roles and seeking to identify what sections of society are underrepresented. For those groups that are missing, EMBs should consider direct registrations, or ‘bolt ons’. This could include using school and education data to boost the number of young people who are registered – a notoriously low registered group.

James also distinguished between different types of voter registration system:

  • laissez faire, where it is solely the individual’s responsibility to get registered
  • assisted, where the state supports and encourages individuals to register
  • automatic, where the state leads on registering all eligible voters

On both counts of accuracy and completeness, automatic registration systems were deemed to be more effective. However, this does perhaps raise issues of privacy and data protection. For an automatic registration system to work it requires reliable datasources that are also regularly updated. Yet it is unclear whether citizens are aware of how their data is being used, whether it is being used for commercial use and whether it exposes both EMBs and individuals to greater risks of hacking. It could also create a problem for certain vulnerable groups such as domestic violence victims who rely on anonymity to remain safe.

Voter Registration in Practice – “a good list means a good election”

Dr Nasim Zaidi continued the theme of completeness and accuracy reflecting on the work that the Indian Electoral Commission (IEC) undertakes to improve registration, especially during his spell as Chair between 2015 and 2017. Unlike many democracies, India has not adopted a periodic system or civil registry system, instead it maintains a continuous register of voters. Even after the final publication of a registration roll, voters are still able to register, and the e-roll is continuously audited through a series of summary, intensive and special revisions. Any statistical irregularities are then examined to check for intentional inaccuracies (India faces 5,000-6,000 unsuccessful attacks on their registration rolls each day). With this system, Dr Zaidi argues that the Indian Electoral Commission is well placed to ensure registration rolls remain accurate and reflect changes due to deaths, people reaching voting age, qualifications/disqualifications to vote, and changes to registration laws.

Dr Zaidi also highlighted the importance of ensuring that citizens have access to the process, and how the IEC provides a “simple and user-friendly process with multiple points of contact”. Submission forms for enrolment can be submitted in person by any family member, they can also be sent by post, email or by directly contacting a government agency. As part of an assisted voter registration system, forms are also sent by the IEC to educational institutions, corporate and government offices. For Dr Zaidi, this process is crucial to promoting inclusion in the democratic process and therefore preventing disenfranchisement. But nevertheless, some groups remain underrepresented, including women, young people, people with disabilities, the homeless and transgender people. To deal with this, Dr Zaidi recommends taking extraordinary measures. During his time as chair, the IEC reached out to nomadic people, the homeless and rough sleepers, and encouraged them to register by liberalising the standard condition of ordinary residence. This allowed for more general statements of residence such as the area in which they sleep during the night.

Lalitha Flach provided an insight into one of the more successful democracies when it comes to voter registration, reflecting on the innovative use of technology to expose new generations to the various steps involved in participating in an election. Elections Ontario – with an electorate of over 10 million – has pursued the line that “a good list means a good election”, implying that securing an accurate, complete and inclusive voter registration roll is crucial to enabling the EMB to inform the public about key dates in the election cycle, changes in protocols and support for those with barriers to voting such as disabilities. The registration process tends to be the first stage in the electoral process, and Ontario illustrates how important this is, not only in and of itself, but to the successful delivery of the following stages as well.

However, Flach identifies a number of issues with traditional mass-printed communication as a way of bringing Elections Ontario to the attention of the electorate. Electors are increasingly expecting information to be delivered to them directly, and directly to their digital devices. Furthermore, electors are getting large amounts of often conflicting information from an increasing range of sources. The rise of misinformation and disinformation has placed an even greater burden on EMBs to not only ensure that their information gets to electors but that it is able to compete with other information sources. Election Ontario’s answer to this challenge has been to launch its Personalized Voter Communication (PVC), to reach electors directly in digital spaces they frequent, reduce reliability on third party vendors and facilitate real time calls to action. A transition to such a system is, of course, not without its difficulties though. The EMB had to deal with the need to change mindsets of the electorate from passive to active participation, ensure uptake of the PVC and deal with internal constraints such as budgetary and procurement issues. Nevertheless, a digital platform such as PVC does provide considerable space for innovation, that is inexpensive to customise and adapt to emerging situations, and could be crucial to embedding awareness of the electoral process over the long term.

ICPS was also delighted to welcome Benjamin Hovland, chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, as he brought his reflections on the recent Presidential election. The election has perhaps been remembered for the controversies that have followed and levels of disinformation that have arguably been spread both in Washington and online. However, Hovland stated that despite the aftermath and political rhetoric, it was “the best administered election that I’ve seen in my career” – nearly 160 million valid votes were cast and two thirds cast their vote early, double what is normally seen. This perhaps gives an insight into the peculiar nature of electoral administration in the US. The system is extremely decentralised, with elections not only being managed 50 different ways across the 50 states, but also variation within states and along county lines. This has a number of implications. Firstly, it makes the nationwide poll very difficult to manipulate on any large scale or meaningful way. Secondly, it provides a catalyst for progress in electoral management as there is room for experimentation. But third, it “makes misinformation and disinformation a real challenge” as no single orthodoxy exists to counter questions that emerge either from malign influences or uncertainty about the exact protocols in any given voter’s precinct.

On the issue of registration, Hovland described a similar picture of success. Given the ongoing pandemic, and the subsequent increase in use of mail and absentee voting, it was critical that voter registration data was accurate and complete as this was key to ensuring that those ballots got to the right place and in enough time. This was particularly true in the five states that transitioned to entirely mail voting. Hovland pointed to the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) as the most significant piece of federal legislation on voter registration, and key to ensuring the accuracy and completeness of the rolls. According to the Act, states must offer voters the opportunity to register or update their registration every time voters interact with various parts of government. This often happens when voters are dealing with the governmental driving agency – hence its nickname the ‘motor voter law’ – but it is also true when people interact with social services and housing associations, which helps to provide greater levels of registration amongst those groups that tend to be less represented.

The issue of voter suppression has also been raised in the US. The NVRA does significant work to prevent voter discrimination, and has provided civil action groups with the right to challenge any states or agencies that are not adhering to the duty to encourage registration when voters are dealing with government. The use of computerised voter registration lists have helped to ensure that rolls remain up to date, especially when people move along either state or county lines. It has also paved the way for automatic registration which is currently being trialled in a number of states, and being conducted “with a lot of success” according to Havland. The NVRA also prohibits any states from having a registration cut off date of more than 30 days, and has encouraged some states to do same day registration as well.

The Role of Vendors in Voter Registration

Through the Electoral Stakeholders’ Network, vendor members have also described the challenges they see in the field of voter registration and lent thought as to how they can be addressed. While voters during a pandemic have increasingly had to rely upon mail in and absentee voting, there are areas where this solution is inadequate. Voatz, a mobile election voting organisation, describes how disabled voters and military personnel serving abroad often depend on online registration platforms to maintain access to the electoral process.

There have also been concerns as to the integrity of voter registration rolls. Whether those concerns are valid or mired by disinformation, it has placed a greater duty on electoral managers to demonstrate that their rolls are not manipulated or undermined in any way. Each of the aforementioned speakers described various failsafes that are put into their registration processes and how they are continuously updated and analysed to maintain accuracy. The Laxton Group though describe an additional service which could boost confidence in the system: the use of biometric data. Capturing such information is argued to ensure against duplication and improve verification, but it also provides registration receipts improving clarity and transparency as to each voter’s registration status.

Another issue raised during the virtual roundtable was same-day registration and voting, and any challenges to registration status – both of which would lead to an increased amount of time the respective voter would spend at the polling station, having both a negative impact on queue lengths and social distancing measures. This was an issue noticed during the US Presidential election by Democracy Counts. Their solution is to use a Polling Station Simulator, which provides administrators the opportunity to assess each polling station and predict voter behaviour and plan for more efficient polling. The use of such software can also be fed back to voters and inform them of quieter periods to cast their vote.

Voter Registration & One Person, One Vote

Accurate, complete and inclusive voter registration is important for a number of reasons. As the first step in an election cycle, good performance here can pave the way for good performance throughout the process. This is particularly true in an age of pandemic as more people will be voting remotely, need to be made aware of new protocols, and need to be able to separate the correct information from disinformation. A number of solutions to address this have been discussed during this roundtable from moving to automatic registration, to using digital platforms and continuously analysing and auditing rolls to identify gaps and any threats to their integrity. Not all solutions will be right for each democracy, but it is important that EMBs consider the full spectrum of options and look to improve access to elections through registration, thus guaranteeing that fundamental principle of "one person, one vote, one value”.

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