Yesterday, I heard a discussion on NPR with a member of our state’s (Wisconsin) legislature discussing why he expects legislation to end same-day voter registration to be passed in the next session. While I have been somewhat ambivalent about Voter ID, I have no question about the great value to our state of same day voter registration. Why? It’s because I am an experienced chief poll inspector, and my experience leads me to not trust state poll lists. My opposition is closer to libertarian than liberal. Let me explain.
First of all, my experience. I’m a chief poll inspector at a large polling place with three wards in the City of Waukesha and have served since 2008. We have around 3000 registered voters in our poll books. At a general election, we employ about 11 poll workers in addition to myself. I know from experience what I am talking about when I speak of who is coming to register and for what reasons on the same day.
The stereotype I hear from pundits opposed to same-day registration is that those coming to register are “lazy” (as if that’s a disqualification for voting) and are not performing their civic duty by registering at city hall within the specified dates. While there are no doubt some people who fit this description, same-day registration is not primarily designed to cater to these needs. It’s designed to make sure that everyone who is qualified to vote on election day gets to do so, even if the government has messed up.
Time after time, election after election, there are database problems. I’m not pointing fingers here - voting databases are large and unwieldy and constantly changing. No matter how good the software is, there is always going to be error from input and from problems matching data. In addition, there has been redistricting, which plunged our wards into chaos for two elections. On top of that, there are periodic purges of the state database for various reasons, some administrative, some of apparent political motivation. What this means is that people who registered years ago at city hall, have not moved or changed their name, and voted at the last general election were not in the poll books in November. They were not lazy nor at fault in any way. They were victims of administrative errors or intentional purging. Same-day registration allows us at the polls to deal with issues like these immediately. It is simply not tenable to tell someone who has the right to vote, "I'm sorry, you can't vote today even though you are qualified because someone made a database error." Currently, If they are not in the system, we can re-register then and they show up in the books at the next election.
I have heard people argue that we should just allow people who don’t show up in the books to cast provisional ballots, which would need to be verified with proof of residency at city hall within seven days of the election. But if those that advocate for this are claiming that same-day registration causes delay and difficulty at the polls, just wait until we have to deal with hundreds of provisional ballots. They require multiple inspectors, sealed envelopes, signed ballots that violate voter confidentiality, and a host of other problems. In addition, it could create a huge amount of uncertainty on election night when you have thousands of statewide ballots that may or may not count for up to seven days after the election. That many provisional ballots would create a workload for understaffed local clerks that would be overwhelming in the week following the election, especially if recounts occur. With same-day registration, clerks have until the next election to get the new registrants sorted out and into the database.
Same day registration is simpler, more cost-effective, and avoids the spectacle of people being turned away at the polls by inspectors who are not professionals. Voter fraud is simply not a significant problem. Someone attempting to vote multiple times through same-day registration would be caught by matching of ID or SS# during later reconciliation and forwarded to the District Attorney.
Those who are currently advocating repeal of same-day registration are putting a huge amount of trust in government and their information technology systems. It’s a strange thing to hear people who usually advocate for “small government” to be saying that we need to put our trust of one of our most sacred rights in the hands of a centralized, automated bureaucracy and remove the most flexible, local way to deal with governmental errors. The result of this legislation would do nothing to increase the reliability of our elections, but would ensure that people who are qualified to vote are turned away on election day due to no real fault of their own. Legislators - how would you like the press of an 80 year old Waukesha grandmother turned away from voting due to a law you passed? It is for this reason that I hope that any such legislation will never see the light of day.