West Virginia passed a bill yesterday that will automatically register its citizens to vote when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they opt-out. With the bill’s passage, assuming it is signed by Governor Earl Tomblin, West Virginia becomes the third state to adopt automatic voter registration — an unquestionably good policy. Oregon and California have also adopted automatic voter registration, and similar legislation is pending in over a dozen states across the country.
It’s worth noting that the automatic voter registration provision was added by Democrats as an amendment to a Republican-sponsored voter ID bill. On balance, that’s a compromise progressives should be willing to make — especially in this case, where the ID requirement is very broad. As ABC reported, “items from utility bills to fishing licenses count. Poll workers or friends could also vouch for voters who can’t produce identification.”
News outlets reporting on West Virginia’s bill have gone out of their way to note that between California, Oregon and West Virginia, one of these things is not like the others. Automatic voter registration is considered to be a Democratic policy, because Democrats want more people to vote. But when Democrats suggested the policy as an amendment to form a compromise on voter ID, Republicans didn’t object. In fact, some Republican legislators in the state even seemed borderline enthusiastic. As Senate President Bill Cole (R – Mercer) said, “If managed properly, automatic registration is a great benefit to our citizens and will encourage more people to go to the polls.” Why were West Virginia Republicans so open to this dramatic expansion of ballot access?
I have a theory:
Of states where Republicans control at least one chamber of the legislature and/or the governorship, West Virginia has one of the lowest African-American population shares. Only 3.6% of West Virginians are African-American, ranking 37th nationally. Republican states that have enthusiastically pursued stricter forms of voter ID laws while rejecting attempts to make voter registration easier — Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, e.g. — all have much higher African-American shares of the population.
In fact, Alabama was recently warned by the Department of Justice that their state had been out of compliance with the National Voter Registration Act for over two decades.
Conservative lawmakers have at times demonstrated an uncanny ability to support strikingly progressive policies, provided that not too many black people will benefit from them. As I wrote in January:
Racism remains one of the primary predictors of opposition to social welfare programs in the United States. And it’s no accident that the states with some of the most progressive policies — North Dakota has a public bank; Utah provides free housing to its homeless population; Alaska’s permanent fund dividend is, for all intents and purposes, a universal basic income — also happen to be some of the whitest.
West Virginia’s adoption of automatic voter registration, with Republican support, is being heralded by voting rights advocates as proof that the policy doesn’t need to be so heavily politicized. Making voter registration easier doesn’t have to be a partisan issue; just look at West Virginia! But to the extent that this shows that automatic voter registration isn’t necessarily a partisan issue, this does suggest that it remains a partisan issue as it intersects with race.
So yeah, we’ll take the win. But let’s not pretend this strategy can be replicated in, say, Mississippi.