This month, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister of Hungary, and three other members of his political party set up tents in front of the parliament building in Budapest and embarked on a week-long hunger strike. They ended it with a rally before thousands of their compatriots — all to protest a proposed law that requires Hungarians to register before voting in the upcoming election. Why so much passionate resistance to registering 15 days before the election? One ally of the protesters went so far as to say that they were doing it “to call the attention of the people to how the government is bringing down democracy.” Gyurcsány said that he believes “it is unacceptable that anyone who happens to decide two days before an election that he wants to vote cannot do so and take part in the election.”
Americans have been registering to vote since the late 19th century and don’t see it as incompatible with democracy. Notably, though, North Dakotans don’t have to register to vote. They can just show up on Election Day. But if most other Americans are not registered by Oct. 9, they will be shut out from voting in this year’s presidential election. (There are exceptions in several states, such as Maine, that allow Election Day registration.) Americans by now are accustomed to the burdens of voter registration: find out how to register; fill out the paperwork; hope to see your name on the rolls when you show up at the polls. But to most people throughout the world, the U.S. system is mystifying. Other governments systematically create eligible voter lists, enabling the vast majority of their adult population to vote. And the governments affirmatively maintain the rolls. In the United States, we put the burden on the voter. And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi.
Today, Hungarians do not have to register to vote, and the proposal to impose registration by their current far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has drawn sharp opposition. It is seen as a form of voter suppression that is part of a larger anti-democratic platform, which includes the law Orbán backed in 2010 that creates a government media oversight council; critics said it amounted to censorship.