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.
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:
If GOPers REALLY believed this was center-right nation, they'd have no problem implementing universal voter reg http://t.co/LcFuCKbxJG
— Markos Moulitsas (@markos) June 11, 2015
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.