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 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT