BOSTON/WASHINGTON (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 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.
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.
The safeguards are in place to prevent a problem that rarely, if ever occurs, largely because few people are willing to risk felony charges to influence an election, Holder said.
"You can't get groups of sufficient numbers of people that are willing to face that possibility and try to influence an election, which is why in-person voter fraud simply doesn't exist to the extent that some on the right have said that it does," Holder told a crowd of several hundred at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
REACHING 'EVERY ELIGIBLE VOTER'
Holder said the current 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.
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 spotlighted 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 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 many barricades for black voters.
"The arc of American history has bent towards expanding the franchise," he said. "This generation must be true to that more inclusive history. ... it is not a time to restrict the franchise."
Holder, also recommended that polling places should have an adequate number of voting machines and be open for additional days - a challenge because thousands of local officials make those decisions independently.
"We should rethink this whole notion that voting only occurs on Tuesday, which is an agricultural notion from way back," Holder said. "Why not have voting on weekends?"
Holder declined to say how much longer he would remain in the role that he has held since 2009, though he ruled out staying for the whole of Obama's second term.
"I am not going to be the Lou Gehrig, the Cal Ripken of the Justice Department, the Janet Reno of the Justice Department, who served two full four-year terms," Holder said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney; and Jackie Frank)