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D.C. Takes Up Same Day Registration, So Should Congress

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Today, Virginians will turn out to elect their new governor. Unfortunately, Virginians who are eligible to vote but missed the October 5th registration deadline will not be able to play a role in this important process.

It would be a different story if these Virginians lived in our states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, or any of the seven other states that allow citizens to register and vote on the same day. If they did, merely missing a deadline some 30 days before Election Day -- deadlines that vary widely from state to state -- would not prevent them from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

In 2007, two states, Iowa and North Carolina, adopted Same Day Registration (SDR) proposals. Both states experienced their highest level of voter turnout in decades. Today the DC City Council is scheduled to vote on an omnibus election reform bill that will allow SDR in our nation's capital.

As the Council prepares to vote on this measure, we want to share our experience with Same Day Registration in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both states have allowed Same Day Registration since the 1970's and since then both states have consistently ranked among the top states in the nation in voter turnout. In fact, in the 2008 election, Minnesota and Wisconsin joined three other SDR states -- Maine, New Hampshire and Iowa -- on the top five list. That's not a coincidence.

Numerous studies by Demos, a non-partisan public policy group, have shown that SDR is especially effective in boosting voter turnout among groups with historically low participation. For this reason, SDR may very well yield a meaningful increase in voting in the District. In 2008, only 60.7 percent of eligible voters in D.C. cast a ballot -- 35 states had higher turnout rates. About 11,000 eligible but unregistered DC residents did not participate in the historic 2008 election. SDR could have made a big difference for many of these citizens.

In addition to increasing voter participation, SDR reduces provisional ballots. When voters who believe they are registered show up at the polls only to find out they are not listed on the voter rolls, they are usually provided a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are rejected and discarded if it turns out the voter was not properly registered. SDR will allow voters to register on the spot, if they are qualified to vote.

Wisconsin recorded only 211 provisional ballots in the 2008 presidential election compared to 4,575 provisional ballots in Virginia (about half went uncounted) and 14,713 provisional ballots in the District (close to 30% were not counted). Same Day Registration virtually eliminates the need for provisional voting, simplifying and putting certainty back into the process.

Opponents of Same Day Registration argue that SDR will open the floodgates to voter fraud. They are wrong. There is no evidence that SDR harms the integrity of elections in our states. In fact, the opposite is true. In the words of Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, "EDR [Election Day Registration] is much more secure because you have the person right in front of you -- not a postcard in the mail.... We have 35 years of experience with this." It is worth noting that in the highly scrutinized 2008 Senate election in Minnesota, there were no allegations of fraud caused by SDR.

Some opponents warn that Same Day Registration could cause administrative problems. But our election officials say otherwise. They run election after election without significant complications related to SDR. SDR both improves participation and eliminates many difficulties experienced at the polls across the nation. It's a win-win for voters and election officials. That is why we have introduced the Same Day Registration Act in Congress to require every state to allow SDR for federal elections.

Today is the DC Council's chance to make it easier for citizens to fulfill their greatest civic duty and make their voices heard. SDR is an important reform that has worked in our states. We commend the DC Council for considering it, and we believe Congress should do the same.

Update:

The DC Council today unanimously passed an election reform bill that includes Same Day Registration. The bill now goes to Mayor Adrian Fenty for his signature and will become law after the standard 30-day congressional review period. We congratulate the Council and the citizens of DC.

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