Skip to main content

Bring voting into the digital age

By Wendy Weiser, Special to CNN
updated 7:29 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
Wendy Weiser says Supreme Court ruling on Arizona points up need to modernize the U.S. election system to admit more voters
Wendy Weiser says Supreme Court ruling on Arizona points up need to modernize the U.S. election system to admit more voters
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wendy Weiser: Supreme Court's Arizona ruling points up need for voting modernization in U.S.
  • Court said Congress, not states, regulates vote. Motor voter act aimed to make it easier, she says
  • She says registration must move to digital age, replacing paper system, admitting more voters
  • Weiser: Some states already do this. We need national voting standard for election process

Editor's note: Wendy Weiser directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

(CNN) -- Now that the Supreme Court has invalidated part of Arizona's voter registration law, states should be thinking twice before introducing laws to make it harder to cast a ballot. Monday's decision is indeed a big victory for voters — but it is also a stark reminder that free, fair and accessible elections in the United States are not as guaranteed as you might think. To fix this, we need to modernize our election system.

The Supreme Court took a critical step toward this, confirming Congress' broad authority to regulate how we conduct federal elections, particularly as politicians in states across the country continue to push new laws that would make it harder for Americans to vote. Dozens of restrictive measures passed in 19 states before the 2012 election. Citizens, the courts, and the Justice Department blocked or weakened most of them, but the push has continued in 2013. The court's decision gives federal lawmakers an even stronger basis to provide minimum national standards for voting and bring our election system into the 21st century.

The court also made it clear that states may not undermine Congress' effort to streamline the voter registration process for federal elections. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the "motor voter" law, to upgrade registration. At the time, it was a terrific advancement for voters. It increased access to registration by providing one simple, uniform application form that could be used to register for federal elections in any state. It entitled all Americans to register to vote by mail and encouraged voter registration drives. It also gave citizens the opportunity to register while applying for a driver's license and other government services (hence the nickname).

This law has worked remarkably well. Voter registration rates surged after its passage; almost 16 million Americans register each year using its procedures.

But in 2004, Arizona passed a law that contradicted motor voter. It required voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship when registering. If voters submitted a federal registration without these documents, Arizona rejected their applications. This prevented tens of thousands of citizens from registering, made it difficult for many to register by mail, and dramatically cut back on community-based drives.

The court's decision stops that from happening. It resoundingly affirms what Congress tried to do with motor voter: create minimum national standards and streamline the registration process.

The Supreme Court's closing act
Supreme Court compromise on gene patents

But we shouldn't stop there. Two decades ago, computers were still new to public institutions. Now they're everywhere and in the palm of our hands. Motor voter was the solution for the 20th century, but it has relied on error-prone paper forms and the mail. It is still ramshackle—illegible handwriting leads to mistyped names and addresses, for one thing-- and a chief cause of long lines and Election Day chaos. This can jeopardize a person's right to vote and harm the integrity of our elections. There are better solutions for the 21st century.

We need to change the way we think about voter registration and move our system into the digital age. If citizens take the responsibility to register to vote, the government has the responsibility to ensure they can. Existing technology can give citizens the choice to be electronically registered to vote at the same time they do business with a government office, such as when they apply for a driver's license or state veterans' benefits.

We can also enable citizens to register online and stay registered if they move or change their address. This would add 50 million eligible Americans to the rolls, cost less and curb the potential for fraud.

Fortunately, we've seen movement across the country. Already, most states-- including several this year--have implemented key reforms. Colorado passed a broad modernization bill, and Virginia and West Virginia instituted online registration. In January, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, which includes modernization at its core.

Judging by the long lines last November, we clearly need national voting standards that make voting speedy and efficient. Motor voter does that—and we are thankful the court agreed— but it's not enough. To ensure our elections remain open to all eligible Americans, registration must be brought into the 21st century — now.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wendy Weiser

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT