Amid allegations of widespread voter fraud from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the American public has turned its gaze to the maintenance of voter registration lists. John Lindback and Mary Stegmaier provide an overview of the challenges posed by the US’s decentralized voter registration system, and discuss reforms that are already underway to improve the accuracy of voter rolls.
Officials who administer elections in the United States find themselves playing defence this year. In recent months, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has frequently charged that the American elections system is rigged against him. While Trump has offered no concrete evidence of systemic fraud, his repeated claims have created a perception problem. US elections officials have responded by emphasizing that studies do not support his allegations, and by citing the decentralised elections system among the 50 states and the multiple safeguards against hacking voting machines. But, elections officials will acknowledge that one part of the system – voter registration – is flawed.
The American elections system differs from many other democracies in ways that make maintaining accurate voter registration lists a challenge. The US lacks a tool that most other countries use to determine voter eligibility – a centralised, national registry of citizens. Many countries use their national registries as the basis for voter lists at each voting precinct, which means that citizens are automatically registered to vote. When voters show up at their precinct polling station, they present their national ID card, and if this matches, they are issued the ballot. In contrast, the US has no national registry of American citizens nor is there a universally issued national identification card. Instead, to be eligible to vote, Americans must first take the initiative to register with their state and provide the basic identifying information necessary to determine where they are entitled to cast a ballot. Each state and the District of Columbia maintain its own voter registration rolls – a decentralised system that contrasts with the centralised system used in other countries. Further, because election law in the US is largely made at the state level, the states vary in their voter ID requirements and registration deadlines. For this election, 10 states and the District of Columbia will allow people to register to vote on Election Day; the rest maintain deadlines that range from a few days to a full month in advance of the election.