President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977 with the conviction that it should be easier for citizens to register to vote. To accomplish that goal, he wrote to Democratic secretaries of state that year urging them to support legislation that would allow voters to register on Election Day. “The continuing decline in American voter participation is a serious problem which calls for the attention of all of us in public life,” Carter wrote. Advisers to Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale had concluded that Election Day registration, which they called “universal registration,” would boost low turnout rates. They cited laws passed in Minnesota and Wisconsin after the 1972 election that allowed citizens to register at the polls, which placed both states in the top five for highest turnout in 1976. But tucked away in their correspondence about the election reform proposals was an acknowledgment that the United States’ neighbor to the north had made it even easier for citizens to vote, by registering them automatically with government data.
“You no doubt know that the Canadian system calls upon the government to register all citizens, in effect shifting the burden from the individual to the government,” Mondale’s Chief of Staff Richard Moe wrote to Carter. “While Canada has had some apparent success with this system, there is little interest in pursuing it here and it is my judgment that the prospects of achieving Election Day registration are much greater, and, if achieved, that it would be more successful.”
Carter’s team went with Election Day registration knowing it could meet with opposition on the Hill. Even though bills to mandate Election Day registration were introduced in Congress with Republican co-sponsors — such bipartisanship on voting rights would be astonishing today — the legislation was abandoned when it ran into roadblocks thrown up by conservatives like Ronald Reagan.