Voter Registration Modernization: A Case Study of the Canadian System of Voter Registration

Voter Registration, Election Technology, Electoral Systems, Elections, Public Funding

June 26, 2009 - IFES

It works provided the Govt agencies feeding the information to the Election Commission are honest and competent.

American electoral officials and policymakers met with their Canadian counterparts in Toronto as part of an effort to modernize the U.S. voter registration system and address some of its shortfalls during a two-day conference earlier this month.

The meeting was spurred by The Pew Center on the States' December Summit on "Voting in America", where the issue of improving voter registration in America dominated the discussions. Further support for the need to investigate possible reforms came from a report sponsored by Pew and conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was released during a Senate Rules Committee hearing in March. The report found that in the U.S., problems with voter registration, such as error-filled voting lists or wrongful purges of voter rolls, contributed to preventing as many as three million registered voters from casting ballots in the last elections. The report estimated that another nine million eligible voters tried to register but failed to because of a variety of hurdles, including missed deadlines or changes in residence.

One of the key challenges of the American system is the level of decentralization. In the U.S. there are effectively over 13,000 distinct election management bodies. State level officials (Boards of Elections or Secretaries of State and sometimes legislators) design registration forms and determine requirements while continuous voter registries are maintained by local governments.

Canada, on the other hand, boasts a successful voter registration system that captures almost all eligible citizens, is highly accurate and is cost-efficient. The voter database, known as the National Register of Electors, is updated continuously based on information routinely provided to Elections Canada by 40 government agencies. Since its introduction, Canada's continuous voter list saves the federal government over $30 million each election and creates significant cost savings at the provincial, territorial and municipal levels which also benefit from the federal registration program and who employ continuous, automated registration systems of their own. The linkages between the federal and provincial lists and the use of public sources of information for voter identification are key elements contributing to the effectiveness of the Canadian system.

The event, held at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto on June 4 and 5, 2009, brought together state and county election administrators from 21 states in the U.S. and Canada, as well as academics and technical specialists in the field. The conference was a joint initiative hosted by the Pew Center on the States Election Initiatives, and IFES.