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Civil rights chief makes case for automatic voter sign-ups

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By The Associated Press
Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 8:14 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A top enforcer of the nation's civil rights laws on Friday said government should be responsible for automatically registering citizens to vote by using existing databases to compile lists of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction.

The proposal by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division, was made after an election with breakdowns that forced voters in many states to wait in line for hours.

In remarks at George Washington University law school, Perez said census data show that of 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the 2008 presidential election, 60 million were not registered and therefore ineligible to cast a ballot.

Perez said one of the biggest barriers to voting in this country is an antiquated registration system.

President Obama has said the problem must be dealt with, and “we in the Justice Department ... have already begun discussing ways to address long lines and other election administration problems, whether through proposed legislation, executive action and other policy measures,” Perez said in prepared remarks. He welcomed his audience to contribute suggestions.

“For too many people in our democracy, the act of voting has become an endurance contest,” he said. “I used to run marathons; you should not feel like you have endured a marathon when you vote.”

Perez said the current registration system is needlessly complex and forces state and local officials to manually process a crush of new registrations, most handwritten, every election season.

This leaves “the system riddled with errors, too often, creating chaos at the polls,” he said. “That's exactly what we saw at a number of polling places on Election Day last week.

“Fortunately, modern technology provides a straightforward fix for these problems — if we have the political will to bring our election systems into the 21st century,” Perez said. “It should be the government's responsibility to automatically register citizens to vote, by compiling — from databases that already exist — a list of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction. Of course, these lists would be used solely to administer elections — and would protect essential privacy rights.”

He did not say which level of government should be responsible for implementing such changes.

Perez said the nation also must address the problem that 1 in 9 Americans moves every year, but voter registration often does not move with people who move.

Election officials should work together to establish a program of “permanent, portable registration so that voters who move can vote at their new polling place on Election Day,” Perez said.

In the meantime, he said, states should implement fail-safe procedures to correct voter roll errors and omissions by allowing every voter to cast a regular, nonprovisional ballot on Election Day.

Perez supports allowing voters to register and cast ballots on the same day. He called same-day registration “a reform we should be considering seriously” because it would promote voter participation.

He said that in the 2008 presidential election, five of the six states with the highest turnout in the country were states with same-day registration.

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