U.S. attorney general says voter registration should be automatic

BOSTON Tue Dec 11, 2012 6:21pm EST

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BOSTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday that U.S. election officials should register eligible voters automatically and take steps to reduce the long lines Americans encountered in national elections on November 6.

In a speech being given in Boston, Holder became the highest-ranking official to call for voting changes since President Barack Obama expressed exasperation with the hours-long lines during his re-election victory speech last night.

"Modern technology provides ways to address many of the problems that impede the efficient administration of elections," Holder said, according to a copy of the speech obtained by Reuters before delivery.

The United States has a patchwork election system, relying on local officials in 50 states and the District of Columbia to process the paperwork needed to register - without the use of a national ID card that some other democracies use.

Registering to vote is a necessary step to be eligible to cast a ballot in almost every U.S. state, and some jurisdictions require the paperwork weeks before Election Day.

All the paperwork is handled at the local or state level, and new paperwork is needed when someone moves.

Holder said the system was needlessly complex and riddled with mistakes, resulting in 60 million adult U.S. citizens not being eligible to cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election because they had not filed the right paperwork.

By coordinating existing databases, the government could register "every eligible voter in America" and ensure that registration did not lapse during a move, Holder said at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

An overhaul would likely require approval from Congress, a significant obstacle because of the view by many Republicans that easing registration requirements could increase voter fraud.

Obama shone a spotlight on the subject hours after winning a second four-year term. In his victory speech, he told those who waited in long lines to vote, "By the way, we have to fix that."

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on "the state of the right to vote" on December 19.

Holder, as the chief U.S. law enforcement official, has some limited powers to enforce voting protections. The first black attorney general, he has called improving the system a natural extension of the civil rights movement that in the 1960s eliminated ended many barricades for black voters.

"The arc of American history has bent towards expanding the franchise," he said in Boston. "This generation must be true to that more inclusive history. This is our time; it is not a time to restrict the franchise."

To reduce long lines, Holder said polling places should have an adequate number of voting machines and be open for additional days - another difficult challenge because thousands of local officials make those decisions independently.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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