Skip to main content

Bring voting into the digital age

By Wendy Weiser, Special to CNN
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 1129 GMT (1929 HKT)
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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
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.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
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?
ADVERTISEMENT