House Democrats introduce automatic voter registration

On the heels of Oregon passing automatic voter registration; Illinois, Vermont and California proposing it; and Hillary Clinton endorsing it, Congressman David Cicilline (D – RI) introduced the (AVRA) on Wednesday.

As with Oregon and Illinois’ bills, the law would update state “motor voter” requirements to make voter registration through state agencies opt-out instead of opt-in. Unless citizens request otherwise, the information they provide to the DMV would be forwarded to their local registrar and used to update the voter rolls.

(Of course, this assumes that GOP-controlled states would actually follow this law. As we have learned recently, even when voters opt in to having their information forwarded, state agencies in conservative states have a conveniently hard time with their paperwork.)

Currently, 24 percent of eligible voters — roughly 55 million American citizens — are not registered.

It’s important to note that the bill provides for automatic, but not universal, voter registration. As many, perhaps even the majority, of unregistered voters don’t interact with their state’s DMV, they would not be affected by the law. By Congressman Ciciline’s own estimates, the AVRA would bring America up from 76 percent voter registration to around 85 percent — closing less than half of the voter registration gap.

To be clear, though, enacting the AVRA would be a massive and necessary expansion of the franchise. As Congressman Cicilline pointed out, if you can get voter registration right, everything else gets a whole lot easier, telling ThinkProgress:

It’s the entry point to voting because all the other efforts you make — early voting and making Election Day a national holiday and the work we do individually to encourage people to participate — none of that can happen without a person being allowed to vote.

As I and others have noted before, it goes beyond that. Removing barriers to entry for voting — barriers that were erected for the express purpose of reducing the political power of poor and minority voters — doesn’t just make other electoral reforms easier. It makes electing progressive candidates and, subsequently, enacting progressive policies easier.

This is because the population of unregistered voters holds far more liberal views on economic issues than the population of registered voters (a phenomenon most easily observed in horserace polls when Democrats consistently perform better in polls of adults than they do in polls of registered voters only). In a 2012 Pew survey, self-described non-voters — some registered, some not — backed President Obama over Mitt Romney by more than a 2-1 margin.

Register, via Shutterstock

Register, via Shutterstock

Non-voters are more likely to see a role for government in solving the nation’s problems than voters. Non-voters are more likely to support taxes on the upper class than voters. Non-voters are more likely to support union organizing, increased funding for schools and public health insurance than voters.

What’s more, there’s good reason to believe that a significant portion of the unregistered population would exercise their rights if the barriers to entry were removed. At least 4 million citizens went unregistered in 2012 due to voter registration deadlines alone. Far from the civic idiots that conservatives assume them to be, these are citizens who are engaged in the political process. There is no good reason from erecting arbitrary barriers to exclude them from the political process.

So it’s no wonder that, despite voting being a democracy issue as opposed to a Democratic issue, there is little hope that Republicans will come on board. As Markos Moulitsas pointed out:

We shouldn’t expect the AVRA to get through the House, let alone the Senate, any time soon. But the fact that it’s been proposed means that the idea has legitimacy that it didn’t have last year. Given how slowly American legislation moves, that’s as good of a seed for progress as we can hope for.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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    In the absence of economic democracy – workers control of the wealth of the nation – political democracy is a no starter. That’s not just a guess, it’s a proven theory.

    “A new scientific study from Princeton researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern researcher Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn’t a democracy any more. And they’ve found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.

    Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often. It’s beyond alarming.

    As Gilens and Page write, ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.” http://mic.com/articles/87719/princeton-concludes-what-kind-of-government-america-really-has-and-it-s-not-a-democracy

  • UncleBucky

    If ALEC can put through bills time and again, WE can do that, too. Not just at the Federal level, but at the state and even municipal levels. And in particular, if all bills were coordinated, such that the Federal would only complete, not compete with state bills, we would have a good thing. This thing of UNIVERSAL participation can go further than voting:

    * Universal Voting (Of those citizens 18 and above who are physically/mentally able) that is mandated and performed on National and State holidays.

    * Single Payer Universal Health Care

    * Universal Public Education, K+12+4

    * Universal Worker Representation and Negotiation (Unions)

    * Universal Consistent Retirement at 65, none of this graduated retirement beyond the forced “retirement” that age-discrimination brings.

    * Single Payer Universal Homeowners and Renters Insurance

    But it starts with VOTING DEMOCRATICALLY in 2016.

  • As much as I’d like to see this become the law of the land, it won’t happen. Encouraging more people to vote is against far too many special interests that Congress relies on. Maybe in a few individual states, but it won’t happen nationwide until someone works very hard to rebuild the populist movement.

    I’d also like to see a “None of the Above” option on every ballot too, and not allow any candidate who can’t beat “None of the Above” to take office – but that’s just a pipe dream.

  • Good to be talking about this, just as it’s been great to get the meme out there of how it would make sense (and be good public policy on so many levels) not to maintain Social Security and Medicare, but expand them and increase their benefits.

    But what really needs to happen is more than just the memes, and more than just introducing bills we all know won’t even make it out of committee in the GOPer-controlled Congress. There are still plenty of progressive-controlled states in the U.S. There needs to be a push for that Electoral College obsolescence ‘popular vote’ measure, which wouldn’t need that many more states to become a reality. And EVERY single Dem state in the country should be pushing for universal voter registration and all the means necessary to increase voter participation.

  • Indigo

    Fewer than you might think but yes, we have a token group.

  • 2karmanot

    LOL. You go Indigo: two snaps and around the world! I put pride flags on my walker handles when I go.

  • 2karmanot

    Not only get citizens to register, but I imagine put an end to America’s ongoing wars.

  • Demosthenes

    Automatic voter registration makes good sense. It takes away an unnecessary step for registration, but doesn’t force someone to vote. (Everyone should have the right to refuse to vote). Obviously such a bill won’t become law for quite some time, but this is a way to usefully shift the debate from the current morass where one political party seeks to subtly make voting more difficult and the other isn’t aggressively pushing back to facilitate voting by all eligible citizens.

  • FLL

    If we can register every male for military conscription on reaching age 18, we can get citizens registered to vote.

    Dead on target. And yes, I agree that people should keep “hammering away at this.”

  • gratuitous

    Will it pass? Probably not. Will it put Republicans in an awkward position? Yupper smucker. Is it good policy? Yes. Why don’t we play a long game for once, and keep hammering away at this until we reach our goal?

    If we can register every male for military conscription on reaching age 18, we can get citizens registered to vote.

  • FLL

    At least the general idea of voter registration reform is in the air. People everywhere are talking and writing about it. Even though some people (Republicans and Republican wannabes) sneer at the notion, it’s very much the spirit of the times.

  • FLL

    But there’s lots of liberals in Orlando. You’d think they would be used to it.

  • The_Fixer

    You go, Gurrrl! :)

    With me, it all depends on what is going on in that point in my life. Still working, still getting “tapped on the shoulder” to help people move, fix their stuff, or whatever.

    However, I look forward to the day when my schedule permits me to do as you do. If it ever will :)

  • nicho

    I knew some people years ago who were running a rigged poker game. They were always looking for ways to get more people into the game. Too bad they didn’t think of this.

  • Indigo

    I rarely vote early or absentee, although it’s perfectly legal in Florida, because I enjoy going into the polling place so the polling officials can see me face to face and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this old queen is there to vote liberal. They hate it but there I am, in their face! Hah!

  • Indigo

    I like it.

  • The_Fixer

    This would be a great tool to have in trying to get more people registered to vote. It’s not a panacea by any means, but it’s a great start. If only we could expect to see it happen.

    The other ideas Congressman Cicilline presented are also good (I early vote when possible), but wonder how practical having a true national holiday is? We’re a 24-hour society and people have to keep things going. Yes, there are gas stations and convenience stores open even on Christmas day.

    I propose a paid half-day rather than a full holiday. No person would be permitted to work a full shift (even if they have 2 jobs) on election day. Unless, say, they early-voted (and be given time off for that).

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