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
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT