Voter registration issues: VTP voter registration and identification conference

The morning session of the VTP conference today focused on the historical background of voter registration in the United States, and the research that has been conducted so far on the effects of voter registration. Tova Wang (The Century Foundation) spoke about recent developments regarding voter registration, especially NVRA and HAVA. Alexander Keyssar (Harvard University) spoke about the history of voter registration in the United States, briefly covering many of the issues covered in his wonderful book, The Right to Vote. Then, in the second session, Stephen Ansolabehere (MIT) and Jonathan Nagler (NYU) talked about the social science perspectives on what is known about voter registration and it’s impact on political behavior.

In these two sessions, there were three different discussions that I found very interesting.

First, Keyssar stressed repeatedly that in the United States there is no right to vote in the constitution. In his opinion, this is the root cause for many of the basic issues with the electoral process in the United States. As he noted repeatedly, if there were a constitutional right to vote, that would mean that the many administrative failures that we now see in elections (and the various problems they cause) would be much less likely to occur, as they would be a violation of a constitutional right. He also pointed out that in many nations there is a constitutional right to vote, and that in these nations there is in his opinion a more centralized and uniform (and effective?) election administration process. I’m not aware of research that takes this approach to study election administration, but I do think it might be an interesting perspective to study.

Second, Ansolabehere stated that in his opinion the new statewide voter files that are now being used throughout the United States would fundamentally change the nature of political comunications. He noted that they are more current and should have fewer errors than the old lists, they are electronic and highly accessible. As Stephen noted, they are “dynamite” — a conclusion that might be correct. This is well worth studying as parties and candidates beging to use these new files in their efforts to contact voters.

Third, I posed a question to Ansolabehere and Nagler: if they had $5 million to spend on a five-year research agenda to understand voter registration, what would they do? Nagler said that he would spend the money collecting data on the procedures and laws regarding voter registration throughout thates, focusing on perhaps the past two or three decades. He also said that he would invest in collecting data on how how voter registration laws are being implemented, today and in the near future. Ansolabehere had a different take: he said that he would spend the money developing large-scale survey instruments measuring the barriers to voting (and on fixing the basic question that the Census CPS uses to measure barriers to voting). Stephen also said he would develop resources to developing methods to measure fraud, especially voter registration fraud.