From The New York Times
WASHINGTON — As Republicans across the country mount an aggressive effort to tighten voting laws, a group of former aides to President Obama and President Bill Clinton is pledging to counter by spending up to $10 million on a push to make voter registration automatic whenever someone gets a driver’s license.
The change would supercharge the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as the “motor voter” law, which requires states to offer people the option of registering to vote when they apply for driver’s licenses or other identification cards. The new laws would make registration automatic during those transactions unless a driver objected.
The group, called iVote — which is led by Jeremy Bird, who ran Mr. Obama’s voter turnout effort in 2012 — is betting that such laws could bring out millions of new voters who have, for whatever reason, failed to register even when they had the opportunity at motor vehicle departments.
Many of those new voters would be young, poor or minorities — groups that tend to support Democratic candidates, Mr. Bird said.
“I do think it can be a complete game-changer,” he said. “It’s definitely countering what we see as a very organized and well-funded effort by the Republican Party across the country to chip away at voting rights.”
In the two years since the Supreme Court struck down critical parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Republicans in several states have moved to shut down early voting, require identification at the polls and cull voter rolls in what they say is an effort to combat fraud.
That campaign has forced Democrats to try to block the efforts in state legislatures, many of which are controlled by Republicans, or fight them in court after they pass.
With both houses of Congress in Republican hands, the push for automatic voter registration is starting in the states. Oregon enacted the first such law this spring, and California passed a similar measure last month.
In California, nearly six million people who have driver’s licenses are not registered to vote, said Alex Padilla, the secretary of state and a Democrat. He said the new law, which aims to eliminate that discrepancy, was “good for democracy” and added, “It’s more effective and efficient.”
Under automatic voter registration, a teenage driver too young to vote would immediately become registered when he or she turned 18.
Craig T. Smith, who was the political director in Mr. Clinton’s White House and is advising iVote, said legislation to enact automatic voter registration was pending in 17 states. The group is hoping to help push through as many of those bills as possible next year.
The group also plans to begin a petition drive in Ohio to put automatic registration on the ballot next November. And it is exploring the possibility of ballot measures in Colorado, Florida and Nevada.
“The right to vote has come under siege,” Mr. Smith said. “Part of this is to retake the momentum, to make it easier to vote.”
But the effort will not be easy. Republicans control 30 state legislatures, and as of January, 32 states will have Republican governors. Any push for automatic registration in those states is certain to meet stiff resistance.
In addition, new laws are unlikely to be enacted in time for automatic registration to be put in place for the 2016 election.
Kris W. Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas and a Republican, who has been a leading advocate of stricter voting laws, said he opposed automatic registration because people who chose not to register were clearly not interested in voting.
“The assumption that by making what is already easy automatic that will somehow bring people to the polls is just erroneous,” Mr. Kobach said. “I just think it’s a bad idea. It’s not going to increase participation rates.”
Mr. Kobach has pushed for some of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, including one that requires proof of citizenship. He said automatic registration would make that kind of check impossible.
“You’re going to end up with aliens on the voter rolls,” Mr. Kobach said. “It’s inevitable that an automatic registration system would result in many of them getting on.”
Democrats have criticized the Republican efforts as an assault on voters’ rights. Eric H. Holder Jr., Mr. Obama’s first attorney general, said in March that “it has been clear in recent years that fair and free access to the franchise is still, in some areas, under siege.” In August, Mr. Obama wrote in a letter to The New York Times that “our state leaders and legislatures must make it easier — not harder — for more Americans to have their voices heard.”
The effort by iVote is the first major push to counter the Republican moves with a legislative strategy to expand voter rights.
Pete Giangreco, who was a top direct mail and media consultant for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns, said Republicans opposed automatic registration because they wanted to discourage Democratic-leaning citizens from casting ballots.
“They don’t want people to vote,” Mr. Giangreco said. “They’ve gotten very, very good at using technicalities, at disenfranchising individuals — young, immobile, poor, people of color. And those are people that tend to vote Democratic.”
Mr. Giangreco dismissed the criticisms from Mr. Kobach. Motor vehicle departments already prevent noncitizens from registering to vote by obtaining citizenship information from government databases, he said, and under the existing systems, many people who have failed to register could change their minds as an election nears.
He pointed to a recent study by Oxford Journals that looked at people who searched Google for voter registration information even though their deadlines had passed. The study estimated that up to four million unregistered people in the United States appeared to want to vote after all.