This year could serve as a turning point for the strengthening of voting rights in the modern era. And it’s not only because 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which is in need of protection more than ever as some of its key provisions have come under attack. One piece of good news is that Governor Jerry Brown of California is poised to sign into law a measure that automatically registers all eligible residents to vote when they obtain their driver’s licenses. Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state to enact an automatic voter registration law, and New Jersey’s legislature recently passed a similar bill, which now awaits Governor Chris Christie’s signature. This policy has the potential to drive civic participation to higher levels. Other states should follow their lead.
Almost 7 million eligible California residents are not registered to vote. In last November’s election, the most populated state in the country recorded its lowest turnout, at 42 percent. That’s why some California lawmakers set out to find ways to get more people registered. Modeled after Oregon’s law, the measure simply reverses the status quo: Would-be voters currently have to opt in to get enrolled; soon, voter registration will happen by default when receiving or renewing a license from the department of motor vehicles. So the onus now rests with the government, and not with citizens. The right to vote is granted automatically and without unnecessary barriers, as it should be, unless the individual opts out.
Indeed, voter registration has been an intrinsic part of DMV transactions to make it easier for Americans to get on the voter rolls and expand ballot access. Critics of universal automatic registration — including Christie — say it could lead to voter fraud, since the new system potentially could enroll people who shouldn’t be on the voter lists. But modernizing the process and relying on technology will only make voter lists more accurate and the system more cost-efficient. Under automatic registration, the DMV electronically processes and transfers voter data instead of requiring staff to enter information manually from paper applications.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 17 states — including Vermont and New York — as well as Washington, D.C., have introduced bills that would automatically register citizens to vote when they get driver’s licenses. At the federal level, US Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative David Cicilline have each introduced bills in Congress to make universal automatic voter enrollment the law of the land.
To be sure, the measure alone won’t automatically increase voter turnout. But the first step toward that goal is to have more eligible residents registered, giving more people the option to exercise their rights. The decision by lawmakers in both New Jersey and California to follow Oregon would put approximately 16 percent of the country’s population in states offering automatic registration.
Would-be voters too often are blocked by unnecessary bureaucracy. Putting technology to work to enroll voters by default is a sensible way to ensure this most essential American right.