There are currently more than 200 million registered voters in the United States. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau conservatively estimates that more than 20 percent of eligible voters are not registered. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has stated that more than 50 million Americans are not registered to vote.
In the fall 2016 edition of The Legal Eagle, we tackled the issue of automatic voter registration to boost voter rolls. Since then, the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017 was introduced in both houses of Congress. The federal legislation would require all states to automatically register eligible voters when they interact with certain state and federal agencies unless they opt out. For example if someone applies for a driver’s license, applies for government services, registers for classes at a public university or becomes a naturalized citizen, he or she would automatically be registered to vote. The individual’s information would be electronically transferred to election officials, which increases the accuracy of the information in state databases. In addition, the proposed bill would allow citizens to register online and/or update their information when they move, again keeping the voter rolls up to date.
This is not the first time federal legislation has addressed increasing voter rolls in the attempt to spur citizens to vote. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), sometimes referred to as Motor Voter, required that citizens who are eligible to vote be allowed to register when conducting business at a state motor vehicle agency. The difference between NVRA and the current legislation is that it was optional, not automatic. With NVRA, potential voters would only be asked whether they would like to register. With the pending legislation, eligible voters would automatically be registered unless they opt out.
“America is stronger when more Americans participate in our democracy,” Senator Patrick Leahy stated when he introduced the new legislation. “We can take a significant step toward fostering greater participation simply by modernizing the way Americans register to vote through nationwide automatic voter registration.”
Congressman Robert Brady, who introduced the legislation in the House of Representatives said in a statement, “It is more important than ever that Congress work to strengthen our democracy. The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017 would do exactly that by registering millions of eligible voters, improving election security, building a more representative electorate and increasing voter turnout.”
Currently, 10 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia) have approved some type of automatic voter registration.
Does it work?
The Washington Post examined how Oregon’s Motor Voter (OMV) program affected voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. In 2015, Oregon was the first state to institute an automatic voter registration initiative. The Post found that the Oregon initiative registered over 270,000 new voters and more than 98,000 of them voted in the 2016 election, which contributed to the state’s 4.1 percent overall increase in voter turnout. In addition, The Post’s study of Oregon revealed that 40 percent of the newly registered OMV voters fell into the 18 to 29-year-old bracket, a demographic that experts say is underrepresented in the electorate.
Will it pass?
While the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017 is sponsored by Democrats, Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, points out that on the state level there has been strong bipartisan support for voter registration reform.
As for the likelihood of the federal legislation passing, Brater says, “Washington, and the country, are very divided these days. But we remain hopeful that strong support at the state level will show lawmakers in Washington, D.C., that automatic voter registration is a common-sense reform.” Pointing out that the legislation will enhance the accuracy of the nation’s voter rolls, Brater says, “It also helps more people exercise their most fundamental right in our democracy. By registering people who are eligible but not already on the rolls, automatic voter registration expands access to the ballot box.”
Could online voting be far behind?
With technology today, could we actually vote via the Internet someday, avoiding the long lines that plague Election Day voters? Brater says that while some states offer online voting in connection with residents that are members of the military and living overseas, he doesn’t think the country is ready to expand that option to all voters.
“There are too many security risks involved,” Brater says. “It would be detrimental to our democracy to allow online voting without complete confidence that every vote is counted as cast, and not manipulated by hackers or other outside actors.”
In addition, Brater points out that online voting wouldn’t produce a paper backup of a voter’s tally, as many voting machines do. “Having that physical proof of a vote is important,” he says, “especially as foreign countries continue to meddle in our elections.”
Check out the original article: Beefing Up Voter Rolls Automatically
bipartisan: supported by two political parties.
electorate: all the people in a country or area who are entitled to vote in an election.