MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In last years elections, an estimated two million Americans were unable to vote because of problems with their registrations. Others dont even bother to register because it was too difficult. Many people think the nations voter registration system is a mess.
And as NPRs Pam Fessler reports, even some political foes are joining together to try to fix it.
PAM FESSLER: Heres one way people were registered to vote last year.
Unidentified Man #1: Gonna walk straight and then turn
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. Go straight. Go to this bus stop in there, across, over by the liquor store.
FESSLER: Thats two teenage boys hired by the embattled community group, ACORN. Theyre scouring the streets of Columbus, Ohio, looking for potential voters and singing them up somewhat haphazardly.
Unidentified Man #2: Are you old enough to vote?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #2: Well, did you register at your current address yet?
Unidentified Woman: No.
Unidentified Man #2: All right. Let me get you updated.
FESSLER: But heres how some people hope more voters will be registered in the future.
Ms. ELAINE MANLOVE (Commissioner of Elections, Delaware): It has my phone number, it has my date of birth, and my party change. It shows up here. And then I say next, so Im accepting that information.
FESSLER: Elaine Manlove is Delawares commissioner of elections. Shes demonstrating her states new voter registration system at a local DMV office. When residents here apply for new drivers licenses or update their old ones, registering is almost automatic.
Ms. MANLOVE: And then I will be signing this, confirming that Im a citizen and that all the information is accurate.
FESSLER: Manlove signs her name on an electronic pad using a stylus, just like at the department store. A completed voter registration form appears on the screen and a clerk hits enter.
Ms. MANLOVE: And its done its on its way to elections - and then the elections office in Sussex is getting this as we speak, and they can process it.
FESSLER: A far cry from before, when election officials sometimes waited days for piles of paper to arrive from the DMV and then entered the information into a computer - thats if people even bothered to fill out the forms in the first place. Now its a quick click to either register or, if people prefer, decline to do so.
But Delawares system is pretty much on the cutting edge. Many states still use older systems that rely more heavily on registration drives by outside groups such as ACORN and are more prone to error, duplication and fraud.
Mr. TREVOR POTTER (General Counsel, John McCain 2008 Presidential Campaign): We have a voter registration system that doesnt really do what it ought to do.
FESSLER: Trevor Potter was general counsel for Republican John McCains 2008 presidential campaign. Potter says that many eligible voters dont end up on the rolls, often through no fault of their own. He and a lot of other election experts think that doesnt make sense. Why is it the voters job to get their names on the governments list?
Mr. POTTER: If we have a law that says you have to be registered in order to vote, then why wouldnt the government do something to put you on the list if youre entitled to be there and to make sure the list is accurate?
FESSLER: He says the government already knows when someone turns 18 or becomes a naturalized citizen or moves and updates an address through the post office. So, Potter has been meeting with Marc Elias, general counsel for Democrat John Kerrys 2004 presidential campaign and a number of election officials, experts and interest groups. They want to see if they cant come up with a better system.
Doug Chapin with the Pew Center on the States says one idea is to have an individuals voter record be more portable and automatically updated when they move. Chapin says that could eliminate a lot of confusion at the polls.
Mr. DOUG CHAPIN (Project Director, Electiononline.org, Pew Center on the States): Election offices are swamped with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of registration applications. And then they have a very small amount of time to turn those piles of paper into voter rolls, all the while checking eligibility, putting voters in the right precinct.
FESSLER: And for now theres a lot of bipartisan support to do something. Democrats think a more automatic system would make it easier to get people registered. And Republicans think it would reduce the potential for fraud. Thad Hall, an election technology expert at the University of Utah, says as always, though, the devil is in the details.
Professor THAD HALL (University of Utah, Election Technology Expert): How do we more automatic system would make it easier to get people registered. And Republicans think it would reduce the potential for fraud. Thad Hall, an election technology expert at the University of Utah, says as always though, the devil is in the details.
Professor THAD HALL (Political Science, University of Utah; Election Technology Expert): How do we, you know, make sure that the system is secured and that people can feel confident that their information wont be, you know, in some way lost, stolen or otherwise used?
FESSLER: There are a lot of issues still to be worked out. Hall and others think it could take years for something to happen, which is why theyre glad people have begun talking about it now away from the heat of the next big campaign.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.