The (real) case for universal voter registration

Register.jpgIn a major speech last week, Hillary Clinton called for a dramatic expansion of our country’s voter registration system. Her proposal? Automatic registration of every citizen at the age of 18.

I say it’s about time.

Lack of voter participation is a major problem in the United States. If that comes as a surprise, you’re not alone. We’re used to seeing voter participation rates in the 50 percent range, give or take, year after year. We have more participation in presidential elections years, less in off-years, but the average is right around 50 percent of eligible voters come to the polls to cast their ballots. But many countries – most, in fact - do far better. 

Much, much better. And we’re not talking about totalitarian, anti-democratic regimes here.

There are 58 countries that vote at substantial higher rates than we do here in the US. Which countries? Countries such as Uruguay (96.1%), Nicaragua (71.8%), and Romania (59.2%), just to name a few. The chart to the left shows a representative sample of twenty. What is the explanation for this huge discrepancy?

Voter_Turnout.jpgWell, some countries have compulsory voting. That is, you are fined or otherwise sanctioned if you don’t vote. That helps to explain the more than 90+ percent turn out that Belgium and Uruguay achieves. No one is suggesting that tactic here, but the universal registration system would go a long way to achieving similar results. 

But as great a democratic idea as universal voter registration is, Hillary Clinton isn’t a good-government advocate – she’s a politician. And she is not making this proposal in a vacuum. As Paul Wadlman nicely summarized in The Week:

"After the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that laws requiring voters to show government-issued identification at the polls were constitutional — and particularly after the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — Republicans have moved aggressively not just to institute voter ID, but also to restrict early voting and find other ways to make voting a little more difficult. By sheer coincidence, the burden of these laws always falls more heavily on the kind of people who are more likely to vote for Democrats, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and young people. And now Hillary Clinton is proposing to fix part of this system, with an idea that is both extremely significant and bold." 

Put another way, it’s advantageous for Republicans to make it as difficult as possible for everyone to vote, and an opt-in voter registration is a convenient way to achieve that result. It’s long been claimed by Democrats that voting restrictions such as voter ID and  curtailment of early voting were designed in the same way, and some Republican have admitted as much publicly.

Here in North Carolina, we know a thing or two about making it more difficult to vote. When the NC General Assembly passed their “monster” voting law in 2013 that required strict voter ID, cut early voting, eliminated same-day registration, repealed out-of-precinct voting, axed pre-registration for high school students, ended public financing of judicial elections, increased the number of poll challengers and even got rid of Citizen Awareness Month, which encouraged North Carolinians to register to vote, we all surmised that it wasn’t done to preserve the sanctity of ballot box. The intentions were clear.

Given this backdrop, would a nation-wide universal voter registration work? We’re about to get a small-scale experiment on the issue, as Oregon just passed a first in the nation law that will automatically register to vote every Oregonian with a driver’s license. Officials there project it will add 300,000 people to a voter roll that now numbers about 2.2 million. While that is not a huge number, it very well may have a significant impact in upcoming elections, particular when the margins between two particular candidates are very tight. If implemented nation-wide, it could mean as 50 million new registered voters on the rolls.

Of course, there is no guarantee that all of these folks would magically show up to polls on Election Day, but it would be one less barrier between an individual and their vote. 

That is, after all, what we (almost) all want.