The system for registering adult Americans to vote in local and federal elections is such a mess, a new study has found, that the current rolls of 'active voters' include nearly 2 million dead people.
The dysfunction in the system is laid out in a new report from the Pew Center on the States. Unlike most other western democracies, the US mostly relies on its citizens to take the necessary steps to register and there is scant use of modern data-matching technologies to keep the rolls up to date.
Thus while an estimated 93 per cent of eligible adults are correctly registered to vote in Canada, in the US roughly one in four people - about 51 million citizens - who should be able to vote are not registered. Anyone not registered will be refused ballots on election day. Meanwhile roughly one in eight voter registrations in the US are flawed in some way - inaccurate, out of date or duplicates.
"Voter registration is the gateway to participating in our democracy, but these antiquated, paper-based systems are plagued with errors and inefficiencies," said David Becker, Pew's director of Election Initiatives. "These problems waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections."
The scope for errors is especially large when it comes to people of high mobility, for instance military personnel, students and young people generally. Even if people know they are meant to re-register upon moving to a new state and remove themselves from the rolls of the state they have left they do not always make the effort to do so. Thus, according to the report, about 2.75 million voters are registered in more than one state.
The Democrats have taken a more aggressive stance recently in arguing for reforms to make the process easier for example allowing potential voters to register online. Republicans have historically been wary of any changes which they believe could open to doors to voter fraud, however. The Pew report does not suggest the breakdown of the system helps one party over the other.
"We have a ramshackle registration system in the US. It's a mess. It's expensive. There isn't central control over the process," said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In some important swing states, like Ohio or Florida, the problem is less about voters failing to do the necessarily legwork but more about all the campaign volunteers who swoop in before election time to register as many new voters as they can with the result that many people register more than once. "Everybody's registering you here," noted Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. "We don't really have control of that."