The process of voting and electing national and local officials begins with registering people as participants in elections. In this second segment of the "How America Elects" series, VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at the registration process and explains why political parties consider it an essential part of their strategies.
In a ceremony in a Washington, D.C. federal courthouse, these people have just become U.S. citizens. Along with the citizenship certificate they receive a form to register them as voters. For political parties, these new citizens are an opportunity to expand their influence.
Simply put, democracy is the rule of the majority. And in democratic societies, that rule is exercised through voting. But you have to be registered to take part. In the last presidential election in 2004, 72 percent of eligible Americans were registered voters, whether as members of political parties or unaffiliated.
In the United States, if you change where you live, you must re-register to remain eligible to vote. States require people who move to also update their driver's license. And so a 1995 federal law enabling people to update both their driver's license and voter registration at the same time added millions of people to the voting rolls. At least two states, Arizona and Washington, have also set up registration on the Internet, where civil society groups have been promoting registration and voting for years.
Republican official Fred Fleischman in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland says registration is an essential part of gaining and holding political power. "In the state of Maryland, [with the Republicans] being a minority party, it's very critical for us to register as many voters [as possible] so we have enough muscle, so we can compete on an even playing field with the other [Democratic] party.
In early 2007, control of both sides of Congress shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats. That turn of events has energized both parties to scour for new voters ahead of the 2008 elections -- especially ones willing to switch sides.
"I've always voted Republican, but I've been registered as a Democrat because my family was Democrat when I was a kid. So now, I'm changing to Republican."
Changing population patterns have altered the balance between the two major parties in some states and counties. That has created opportunities for each side to try to invade the other party's traditional territory and register new party members. Maryland Democratic Party official Ina Taylor says finding these people and making sure they can and do vote is as important as mobilizing party regulars on Election Day. "It's crucial for us to get out to everybody and get them registered, and lined up ready to vote."
The political process begins with voter registration. But there are many more steps on the road to Election Day. We'll look closely at those aspects, and how they affect the electoral process, in future segments of "How America Elects."