The civil rights marchers who were attacked in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 were attempting to register to vote. The question that people should be asking all these years later is: Why should anyone have to register at all?
On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill that eliminates the need for most citizens to submit registration forms to exercise their constitutional right to vote. That legislation, the first in the country, arises from a simple idea: Government should not force people to file more forms than necessary. (If you disagree, you may have a future career with the Internal Revenue Service.)
Because most individuals already document their citizenship when obtaining their driver’s license, state governments know that such people — so long as they’re at least 18 and have not lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction — are eligible to vote. It’s just a matter of sharing the information with the agency that oversees elections, which is what Oregon will begin doing.
Data sharing between Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles and its secretary of state’s office, which oversees its elections, will add about 300,000 people to the voter rolls, and that number will increase as more people renew their licenses. When people notify the Oregon DMV of an address change, that information will be sent to the secretary of state, too. Government agencies using technology to share information that makes it easier for people to exercise their rights and responsibilities should be a principle that both parties can support.
Now, you might say — as Republicans in Oregon did — what if someone doesn’t want to be registered to vote? Some people think they can avoid getting called for jury duty if they don’t register to vote, thus shirking two civic responsibilities at once. That’s usually not the case, but there may be other reasons to refuse to register, such as if you live in Texas and believe that your state is actually a different country.
To account for democracy’s deadbeats and delinquents, Oregon will send each unregistered citizen a notice that their registration will soon go into effect — and give those who wish to remain unregistered the opportunity to opt out, by returning a form. It’s basic behavioral economics: Make the preferred outcome the default option, with no action required. No one’s choice is taken away; it’s just that the choice has been flipped.
Republicans in Oregon also raised privacy concerns, citing fears of hackers and identity theft. Yet Republicans around the country have been seeking access to state and federal data to identify voters who may be noncitizens, arguing that such information sharing will promote election integrity. The truth is that partisanship, not privacy, lies at the heart of Republican opposition to automatic voter registration.
Democrats think that high voter turnout improves their chances at the polls: The more registered voters, the better the party’s odds. For Republicans, the calculation is reversed. Not a single Oregon Republican in either legislative chamber voted for the bill.
Nevertheless, automatic registration would help Republicans achieve their goal — one that Democrats should share — of upholding the law against noncitizens registering to vote. A recent audit of the voter rolls in North Carolina found that 98 people were registered to vote even though they checked “No” when asked if they were U.S. citizens. In all likelihood, most of those people were given a form that they did not fully understand. After checking the “No” box, they signed the form affirming that they are citizens, unwittingly committing a crime.
Automatic registration reduces the room for such errors, by cutting down on paperwork and improving the identity verification process. That, in turn, will strengthen integrity of the voter registration rolls and help prevent ineligible residents from casting ballots.
Democrats have downplayed the problem of noncitizens registering to vote. Now that they have a way to address it, they ought to acknowledge that the problem is real, and challenge Republicans to join them in solving it.
Automatic voter registration won’t guarantee higher turnout or better results for Democrats. But it will improve both ballot access and security — and spare people from another government form.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy. He previously served as director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.