The Case for Automatic Voter Registration
My friend Isuru couldn’t wait to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Then eighteen years old, she had filled out the Pennsylvania Voter Registration Application form through a campaign worker on our college campus a few weeks before the registration deadline. Everything was good to go. But when she descended to the lobby of her dorm to cast her first–ever vote, the poll workers looked at her, puzzled. “Your registration must not have gone through.” Isuru took the elevator back up to her thirteenth-floor room, passing hallmates and friends sporting their “He Votado Hoy” stickers, and re-registered on her computer for the next time around. But in what should have been her first presidential election, it was too little, too late.
Registering to vote is a hassle. In Pennsylvania, citizens who want to register have two main options: registering online at pavotes.com and a paper form. Groups like NextGen America, Rock the Vote, HelloVote, and others have launched voter registration initiatives to increase millennial engagement. These campaigns regularly set up registration events in local communities, and once you, the applicant, fill out the voter registration form, it is the campaign or organization’s responsibility to send the forms to the Department of Voter Registration for processing.
A small mistake—printing a birthday instead of the date, or mistaking “county” for “country” can void someone's registration, particularly if applicants are cutting it close to the deadline and processing offices find themselves swamped. All that is to say, a lot can go wrong with paper voter registration.
Online isn’t always a safe or convenient bet either. Mechanisms for verifying identity vary from state to state, and although the websites feature fail safes for validating answers that paper forms don’t, it’s still not a perfect system. Only 38 states and D.C. even offer online voter registration as of April 2018.
Don’t get me wrong- I’ve worked on campaigns and for political action committees, and registering people to vote is a challenging task, but certainly one of the most fulfilling parts of working in boots–on–the–ground political organizing. But registering people to vote is hard: no matter how much work you put in, you’re going to miss something or someone.
There is an alternative. 13 US states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration laws on the books. Most of them work through the Department of Motor Vehicles—get your license, and then, on your eighteenth birthday, you’re set.
New Jersey is the most recent US state to adopt this protocol in April 2018. A study by the Center for American Progress estimated that it would register approximately 600,000 new voters who would have otherwise skipped registration entirely. And though many of the states passing AVR laws are blue and cite the policy as a way to legislate against voter suppression, the issue itself actually has fairly widespread bipartisan support.
Voter registration is not the sexiest issue—paperwork fails to get constituents as riled up as, say, gay marriage or entitlement reform. But it matters. This country was built on the idea of representative democracy, and you can’t have that without registered voters.
And millennials, as conventional political wisdom and statistics say, don’t vote nearly as much as Boomers, despite projections that the generation would pass Boomers as the largest voting bloc after the 2016 election.
But, as Pew Research Center notes, “Millennials have punched below their electoral weight in recent presidential elections.” It’s one thing to be eligible to vote—to make an electoral difference, voters need to register and then to actually cast a ballot. Increasing millennial turnout is a focal point for many groups like Rock the Vote and NextGen America, and it’s become a hot-button issue since the 2016 election, with groups pouring money into voter registration efforts in the hopes that they’ll translate into ballots cast.
Essentially, it goes like this: be an eligible citizen, register to vote, cast a ballot. But why not cut out the bureaucracy of the middleman? Vice reported that that, in America, “Only 70 percent of eligible voters registered in the last general election, compared with 96 percent in Australia, 91 percent in Germany and 93 percent in Canada.” What do Australia, Germany, and Canada all have in common? Automatic voter registration.
The Federal government has looked at this issue on–and–off in the past few decades, with the biggest stride at the national level being the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known better by its much–catchier moniker: the “motor voter law”. Essentially, it mandates that DMV facilities give eligible citizens the option to register to vote on–site. And during the Obama years, Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.) brought the Automatic Voter Registration Act to the House floor, where it stalled. And the Trump administration’s first priority with voting rights is curbing voter fraud—which doesn’t happen nearly as often as his statements suggest.
Democracy works when voters feel empowered, and when the government works at the highest level to empower them. Why wouldn’t we take these simple steps to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard?
AVR also enjoys a unique level of bi-partisan support that is less and less common in 2018. Illinois was the tenth state to enact an AVR program: in May of 2017, its Republican governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill guaranteeing that eligible voters who visit a DMV, the office of the Illinois Secretary of State, or other state government offices are automatically registered. Rauner formerly vetoed a similar bill which forced citizens to take themselves off the rolls after being automatically registered. The amended version allows citizens to opt out beforehand. The second version of the bill passed the state Senate unanimously, a sign of Republican support for an issue commonly seen as championed by progressives.
That’s not to say that the issue is universally agreed–upon. The Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby published an op-ed entitled “The Arrogance of Automatic Voter Registration,” arguing that it’s a solution to an “imaginary problem” and that registration is already as easy as it needs to be. Registering to vote is already “as easy as possible,” he says, and he condemns the “popular fetish” of an automatic–registration system. And the conservative Heritage Foundation sees this type of legislation as a threat to the integrity of the whole voting system.
But on the whole, even if you don’t agree that it’s necessary, automatic voter registration policy doesn’t hurt anyone. First and foremost, it’s a modest proposal from a budget standpoint. And, sure, if people don’t want to vote, they won’t vote. But it’s fallacious to ignore a proven track record of higher turnout in countries and even U.S. states that adopt these systems.
I’ll end with this: In 1964, the Supreme Court pronounced: "No right
is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the
election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we
must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to
vote is undermined."