September 21, 2012

Victoria Bassetti is the author of “Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters,” in bookstores Sept. 18. A documentary film of the same name, starring Mo Rocca, will air on PBS in October.

This month, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister of Hungary, and three other members of his political party set up tents in front of the parliament building in Budapest and embarked on a week-long hunger strike. They ended it with a rally before thousands of their compatriots — all to protest a proposed law that requires Hungarians to register before voting in the upcoming election.

Why so much passionate resistance to registering 15 days before the election?

One ally of the protesters went so far as to say that they were doing it “to call the attention of the people to how the government is bringing down democracy.” Gyurcsány said that he believes “it is unacceptable that anyone who happens to decide two days before an election that he wants to vote cannot do so and take part in the election.”

Americans have been registering to vote since the late 19th century and don’t see it as incompatible with democracy. Notably, though, North Dakotans don’t have to register to vote. They can just show up on Election Day. But if most other Americans are not registered by Oct. 9, they will be shut out from voting in this year’s presidential election. (There are exceptions in several states, such as Maine, that allow Election Day registration.)

Americans by now are accustomed to the burdens of voter registration: find out how to register; fill out the paperwork; hope to see your name on the rolls when you show up at the polls. But to most people throughout the world, the U.S. system is mystifying. Other governments systematically create eligible voter lists, enabling the vast majority of their adult population to vote. And the governments affirmatively maintain the rolls.

In the United States, we put the burden on the voter. And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi.

Today, Hungarians do not have to register to vote, and the proposal to impose registration by their current far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has drawn sharp opposition. It is seen as a form of voter suppression that is part of a larger anti-democratic platform, which includes the law Orbán backed in 2010 that creates a government media oversight council; critics said it amounted to censorship.

No one in the United States would say that voter registration is anti-democratic. Yet many political and social scientists believe that our country’s practice of putting the registration burden on individuals, coupled with outmoded, paper-intense registration systems, are major causes of the United States’ perennially low voter turnout. One study estimated that voter registration barriers in the United States depress turnout by 5 to 10 percent.

For the last 60 years, presidential election turnout has rarely hit 60 percent of the voting eligible population. In local elections — for mayor or even governor — turnout routinely falls well below 40 percent. These turnout percentages put the United States almost at the end of the line worldwide for election participation.

Despite these sobering numbers, however, some state legislatures have passed laws in recent years that make voter registration drives even more difficult — and fraught with financial and legal peril. Florida recently passed restrictive laws with such severe penalties for potential missteps during the registration process that the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote all but abandoned their registration efforts. (The groups sued and ultimately won, allowing them safely to resume registering Florida voters.)

We can do better. To start, we could look to the north, to Canada, or to the south, to Mexico, for examples. In Canada, election officials gather information on citizens from other data sources (for example, tax rolls) and create a continuously updated, comprehensive list of voters. Almost 93 percent of eligible Canadian voters are automatically put on its voter rolls. The ones who don’t make it on can register on Election Day.

In Mexico, where voters do have an obligation to register themselves, the government runs what it calls a Permanent Updating Campaign, where it proactively finds and encourages registration, and it deploys mobile registration units to rural and remote parts of the nation to get people registered. It even gave young people gift bags in 2008 to encourage registration. Mexico’s registration rate is above 90 percent.

Here in the United States, our voter registration rate is somewhere between 66 and 75 percent. But no one is going on a hunger strike over that. Instead, we’re passing laws making it harder to launch registration drives and purging our voter rolls. After Gyurcsány recovers from his week-long starvation diet, maybe he’ll come visit America. Or for the sake of his health, maybe he shouldn’t.