Report on Registration Systems in American Elections

Working Paper No.: 
118
Date Published: 
06/26/2013
Author(s): 
Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University
Charles Stewart III, MIT

The Voter Registration System is essential for the management of precincts, handling of ballots, authentication of voters, and communications with voters. The Registration system is massive, with 191.8 million records and 130.3 million voters.

The Registration system is decentralized, managed by 8,000 different local election offices as well as 50 state offices and used at 186,000 different precincts on Election Day. Decentralized use of the lists is a necessity of running elections at many different precincts and through county offices.

One size likely does not fit all. Half of all registration records are maintained by the 160 most populous counties. The other half of all registration records are maintained by the remaining 2900 counties. States should continue to help counties with the maintenance of lists through the statewide systems.

The decentralization of lists has traditionally made it difficult to make a full accounting of the performance of the election system that would allow local election offices to gauge how well they are doing. Complete reporting of voter registrations, turnout at the precinct and election office level would improve the ability of election offices to diagnose where problems arise and for offices to see what other counties are doing well. That would aid in the identification of best practices developed among the counties.

New database technologies have created the opportunity to manage lists more efficiently and accurately. Private firms have emerged to apply these technologies to develop national voter registration lists. The technologies developed by these firms could be used by election offices to improve many aspects of lists and minimize potential errors in lists.

Over the past decade the states have moved rapidly to the adoption of new ways of managing lists. Most notably, 17 states now provide for on-line voter registration, and 11 states now provide for Same Day Registration. These reforms reflect an effort to give voters more control over their own records

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