Among the most foundational rights as a citizen is the right to vote. It’s also one of a citizen’s most important responsibilities along with serving on a jury when called and paying ones taxes.
This right is compromised by an outdated, still largely paper registration system that differs in all 50 states. One in four U.S. citizens is not registered and one in every eight existing registrations is invalid or contains errors. You have to re-register every time you move or change your name, and moving frequently is the number one predicator of non-voting. No wonder six million Americans cite voter registration as the top reason they don’t or can’t vote in national elections. The system today, in spite of recent improvements is, by modern standards, still costly, inefficient, and overly reliant on third party voter registration drives.
Real progress has been made in the past decade. 25 states now allow voters to register online, saving money and increasing accuracy – with no handwriting to decipher! More states are cooperating to share voter registration data and use government databases to improve lists and identify unregistered voters to try to enroll. The growing adoption of Election Day voter registration, now in 14 states, has made the biggest difference in registration and voting rates. States that allow voters to register or update their registration on Election Day have voter turnout rates 10-12 points higher than those without this option.
This year California and Oregon enacted legislation to automatically register eligible voters when they get or renew a driver’s license or state ID. The voter will be notified of their new registration and given the option to opt out. No registrant has to vote, but now they at least have the option. Automatic voter registration, through official government sources, is common in almost all advanced democracies. Canada implemented it successfully starting in 1997. 92% of eligible Canadians are registered, compared to 75% of eligible U.S. citizens.
The U.S. has one problem other democracies don’t. In 36 states there are still laws that don’t allow people on parole or probation for a felony conviction to vote – even though they’ve been deemed appropriate to be back living and working in their communities, and in spite of the rehabilitative benefit of voting and other forms of civic participation. Oregon doesn’t have this problem. California does. There, people on parole can’t vote. The state will likely have to update their law or add the parole question to their license application.
There are many obvious advantages. Automatic voter registration uses already existing official government data for voter registrations rather than relying on third party registrations drives or often improperly filled out paper forms. The registration matches the state ID. It costs less and saves time for local election officials, who would otherwise have to process hard to read or inaccurate paper (or even online) registrations. It also saves time for poll workers held up by voters with registrations problems.
Unlike Election Day registration, there is not yet evidence that it will increase turnout. It’s new and untested. Voting in Oregon is already higher than most states. California is, however, among the worst performers in voter turnout, and will be a welcome test on increasing election participation and providing more people the opportunity to be a voter in the presidential year and local elections to follow. It doesn’t replace the added advantages of Election Day registration or online registration but has the potential to raise registration and voting rates and, with other improvements, give meaning to the right and responsibility of voting and to active citizenship.