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The arrogance of automatic voter registration

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff

UNIVERSAL VOTER REGISTRATION is a lousy idea whose time appears to be coming.

It came last week to Washington state, where Governor Jay Inslee signed a new law under which anyone applying for a driver’s license or an identification card will be automatically registered to vote. Residents who don’t want to be registered will have to affirmatively opt out; otherwise, their names and addresses will be added to the voter rolls and become public information. And what necessitated this infringement on citizens’ previously unfettered freedom to avoid participation in politics and elections? Inslee offered up the usual boilerplate:


“Nearly 2 million voices [are] going unheard in our state’s democratic process,” he intoned. “Democracy is served when more people participate.”

Those statements are untrue. Choosing to avoid the electoral system is not “going unheard,” and democracy isn’t “served” by pushing uninformed, unmotivated, or uninterested voters into the political process. But jacking up voter registration and turnout numbers has become a popular fetish, especially on the American left. Having failed to induce millions of citizens to register to vote despite hectoring, guilt-tripping, and making the process so easy as to be virtually effortless — would-be voters can sign up almost instantly in person, online, or by mail — liberals and Democrats are resorting to their usual default position: mandating it by law.

Washington is the 10th state to adopt automatic voter registration in recent years. A full-court press is currently underway to make Massachusetts the 11th. More than half the state Legislature has cosponsored bills to automatically enroll residents as voters when they apply for Medicaid, renew a driver’s license, or interact in other ways with state agencies. A coalition of left-wing activist groups, including Common Cause, the ACLU, Progressive Massachusetts, and College Democrats, is lobbying for the legislation. William Galvin, the commonwealth’s longtime secretary of state, recently endorsed the measures.


Automatic voter registration is an ill-conceived solution to an imaginary problem — that people are kept from voting because signing up to do so is unduly difficult. In a typical expression of that fiction, the head of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters said last week that automatically registering voters will “expand access to the ballot by removing unnecessary obstacles to registration.” It is the government’s responsibility, the league insists, “to make voting as easy as possible.”

But with rare exceptions, there are no “unnecessary obstacles” to voting. On the whole, Americans who don’t vote don’t want to vote. After every election, the Census Bureau compiles data on nonvoters, and those data consistently confirm that difficulties with registration account for only a minuscule fraction — in 2016, it was just 4.4 percent — of uncast votes. Far more Americans choose not to vote because they didn’t like the candidates or issues (24.8 percent), were too busy (14.3 percent), or simply weren’t interested (15.4 percent).

The right to vote is undeniably precious; so is the right to tune out politics and politicians. The evidence shows that when citizens are motivated to vote, they register. When they aren’t motivated, they don’t. In a free society, both impulses should be respected.

Registering to vote is already “as easy as possible.” All that is required to get on the voter rolls is a willingness to complete a short form. At many of the gun-control rallies over the weekend, people were recruited to sign up by voter-registration volunteers who energetically brandished clipboards and shouted “It takes less than three minutes!” As those rallies with their hundreds of thousands of protesters showed, when citizens are inspired to act, they are eminently capable of doing so.


The same is true of involvement in elections. For those who choose to be voters, our system makes the process dead simple. But the choice is theirs, as it should be. The campaign for automatic voter registration degrades that choice; it’s grounded in the condescending presumption that men and women in a democracy are incapable of deciding for themselves whether to participate in democratic exercises. It’s a remarkably arrogant idea, but it seems to be catching on.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.