How to Keep New Voters Enfranchised

The primaries have been thrilling, marked by surging voter participation. States without Electoral College clout that have traditionally been ignored by candidates—from Indiana and Texas to North Carolina and even South Dakota—have hosted vibrant campaigns. But as the excitement and suspense of the primary season fades and the reality of a general election sets in, how can we make sure this moment of rare public engagement is not just an aberration?

Major change comes when a widely felt public need collides with dysfunctional public institutions. Today, government is broken. The answer must be more than a simple changing of the guard; we know there will be a new president, after all. But there must also be changes in the way our democracy functions. If we want to end the special-interest stasis that paralyzes Congress, for example, we should move to public financing of congressional campaigns. If we worry that Congress is endlessly partisan, we should reform redistricting rules so that lawmakers can't simply carve themselves one-party districts. If we liked the 50-state frenzy that made every vote matter, we should end the Electoral College (which, intriguingly, could be bypassed by states even without a constitutional amendment).

But no improvement would have a more hopeful impact than to craft a modern and inclusive voting system. Turnout in the Democratic primary, at least, has been double that of the last election cycle, and it will likely rise higher in November. But this rising tide may swamp the ramshackle system by which we cast and count votes. With luck, this year won't be a mess. But we can tap this energy to fix voting, for good. Starting next year, the country should move to a system of universal voter registration, in which every eligible citizen can vote. We should end voter registration as we know it.

The United States is one of the few industrialized democracies that erects barriers to registration, making individuals sign themselves up and bear the burden of keeping their registration up to date. The system leaves gaps and inaccuracies in voter rolls, causes voters to fall through the cracks when they move, and creates opportunities for partisan mischief. Former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter chaired a commission that 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." Today, some 50 million eligible American citizens are not on the rolls.

Yes, voting is a responsibility. But the government should not put up obstacles to registration, either through bureaucratic mistakes or misguided laws. We don't privatize most other key roles in our functioning democracy. We don't tell people to organize themselves to show up for the census, or to collect taxes. We don't ask litigants to rustle up a jury pool. We see all these as government's natural, obvious obligation. We should also see government as having the prime role in creating an accurate list of who can vote. This primary season showed a yearning to participate. Government shouldn't stand in the way.

There are many creative ways to achieve universal voter registration. States could piece together a list from existing tallies, such as drivers' licenses and jury rolls. Or states could do what Massachusetts has done for two centuries, which is conduct an annual census to find out who lives there. A new, universal voting list could be updated yearly with mass mailings, tax returns, auto registrations, and forms from the post office that people could fill out when they change their addresses. The federal government could set a national standard, then give states funds to help them make sure the voters are on the rolls.

Whatever method we decide upon, Election Day registration should be a part of the plan in every state. Already, eight states allow citizens to register when they vote. The system boosts turnout by five to seven points, reduces confusion, and makes it possible for "people power" to overturn the political establishment.

A change like universal voter registration would help create a fully modern and participatory election system. Even more, such democracy reforms make other reforms possible. If politicians knew that tens of millions more voters would go to the polls, they might be more likely to act with alacrity on pocketbook issues such as health care. If campaign funding laws are changed so that K Street no longer provides the bulk of funding for members of Congress, complex measures like climate change legislation might come unstuck. If we want to solve our problems, we'd better fix our systems.

The next president should not regard the increase in voter turnout as a personal achievement but rather as a signal that it is time to rebuild the structures of American democracy. The 2008 election will definitely be historic. But it can also be the election that forever changes the way Americans participate in politics.