By State Representative, Leon D. Young
Automatic (or automated) voter registration can be seen as new, or it can be seen as an updated version of processes put in place by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
That law, also known as “motor voter,” pioneered a new way of registering to vote in America. It required most states to provide citizens with an opportunity to register to vote when applying for or renewing a driver’s license.
Now, states are taking this model one step further. Instead of giving someone the choice to register at the motor vehicle agency, some states automatically register that person to vote, unless the person decides to opt-out of voter registration.
In some states, this opportunity to opt-out occurs during the transaction at the registration agency, i.e. the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or another agency if permitted. In other states, like Oregon for example, the opportunity to opt-out occurs later, when election officials send a notification to the registrant asking if he or she wants to proactively opt-out of being registered to vote.
As of August 10, 2018, 13 states and the District of Columbia have authorized automatic voter registration. The list includes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.
Proponents of automatic voter registration say the policy will remove barriers to registration for eligible voters, the first step on the way to voter participation. By registering through a routine and necessary transaction, voters won’t have to worry about registration deadlines or application submissions. In a sense, they are automatically enfranchised.
Automatic registration also will lead to cleaner voter registration rolls because the process updates existing registrations with current addresses. This, in turn, will lead to more efficient elections, with the added benefit of reducing the use of costly provisional ballots, which are a fail-safe voting option when there is a discrepancy in a voter’s registration status. Some supporters also expect automatic voter registration to lead to higher voter turnout, although evidence is not available to prove this point yet.
Detractors of automatic voter registration argue that the government should not be in the business of telling citizens what to do or that they must be registered to vote. They may see automatic voter registration as an infringement upon the First Amendment right to free speech, particularly in states, like Oregon and Alaska, which provide the “opt-out” choice by mail, after the fact.
They question whether opt-out forms that are sent and received through the mail are enough to ensure an individual can decline to register. Fraud is also a concern, as some have questioned whether the process can adequately filter out non-citizens who are able to obtain state identification cards legally.
Opponents also attempt to make the case that more voter registration does not necessarily lead to higher voter turnout. Just because a voter is registered does not mean he or she will vote on Election Day. It remains to be seen whether more voters will get to the polls because of automatic voter registration.
Once again, Republicans and opponents of automatic voter registration have elected to engage in a false narrative. They argue that government should not dictate what citizens should do–like registering to vote. But, in truth, our form of government routinely makes certain demands of its citizenry, such as: paying taxes or requiring kids to attend school. This is part and parcel of the citizenship contract, between government and its people, which includes both rights and responsibilities that all citizens should exercise and respect. And, one of these core responsibilities is to participate in the democratic process, which involves voting.
Clearly, the intent of automatic voter registration is to make easier, NOT HARDER, for individuals to engage in the democratic process. The fact that individuals are automatically enfranchised is a good thing and only serves to make our Democracy more robust. It’s time for Wisconsin to enact its own automatic voter registration law.
This, without question, is long overdue and is a no-brainer.