From The Economist
Reforms that originate on the west coast have such a distinctive tilt that it is sometimes called the left coast. So with Republicans holding the reins in both houses of Congress, it is no surprise that a new crusade to alter voter registration has gained a foothold in two western states. Thanks to new laws passed in Oregon and California, residents will soon be automatically registered to vote when they get or renew a driving licence or state identification card. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, states have to offer citizens the option to register when they apply for such documents. Now, instead of “opting in” to vote, residents in California and Oregon will have to “opt out” of registration.
The movement is gaining momentum nationwide, with legislators in 16 more states pushing similar bills. But it also reflects a partisan conflict. On the whole, Democrats want voting made easier because they believe many newly registered voters would be young, poor and/or minorities—all groups that favour their candidates. For just the same reasons, Republicans think automatic registration is pernicious. No Republican lawmakers voted for the bill in Oregon. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, vetoed an automatic-registration bill passed by the state legislature, dismissing it as “thinly veiled political gamesmanship.” Over the past couple of years, Republicans across the country have launched a campaign to tighten voting laws, requiring extra ID at the polls and purging voter rolls.
Conservatives like to point out that, in many states, undocumented immigrants can obtain driving licences and so could, under an automated system, accidentally become eligible to vote. Others, like Kris Kobach, secretary of state in Kansas, also oppose automatic registration because they believe that people who choose not to register may not be well informed and, anyway, are not interested in voting. But a recent study by Political Analysis, a journal, surveyed Americans who searched Google for voter-registration information after their deadline had passed. It found that between 3m and 4m unregistered people wanted to register to vote, and would have done so had the deadline for registration been extended.
“There have been concerted efforts to restrict voting, so it’s more important than ever that we modernise the system—it’s easier to register to vote in Iraq than the US,” says Hari Sevugan, a former press secretary for the Democratic National Committee and a senior adviser to iVote, a group that has pledged to spend up to $10m on pushing automatic voter registration. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders strongly support the cause.
Partisan politics aside, election watchers are greeting the new laws in California and Oregon as landmark reforms. For decades in America, the responsibility to register has rested with voters themselves rather than with the government; but such a system is fairly rare worldwide. (The only other democracies where this is the case are Mexico, Belize, the Bahamas and Burundi, according to a study published in 2009.) This is why “we have one of the lowest registration rates of any democracy”, says Jocelyn Benson, an expert on election law at Wayne State University. (Approximately 65% of voting-age Americans are currently registered to vote, compared with 91% of Britons and 92% of Canadians.)
The new laws should save money, too. Centralising registration in one place and tapping into pre-existing databases at motor-vehicle offices should save a great deal of paperwork. Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, says the new law is the most cost-conscious and effective way to reach the roughly 6.6m Californians who are eligible, but not registered, to vote, because 90% of them visit a motor-vehicle office at some stage.
Anecdotally, though, it appears that many citizens may still have trouble voting even if they are registered. Eric Odioso, a 25-year-old who lives in Hollywood, signed up to vote when he got his California driving licence. But when he showed up at his local polling station last year, the staff could not find his name on the voter rolls. Worse, they didn’t seem surprised. “I had the sense that this kind of confusion was more commonplace than it ought to be,” he recalls.