Automatic voter registration in Oregon isn’t enough

Last week, Oregon passed the “New Motor Voter” law, which will automatically register all of its eligible citizens to vote and change the state’s registration system from opt-in to opt-out. While a number of states have same-day voter registration and one state, North Dakota, does not have any form of voter registration, Oregon will become the first state to transfer the burden of registration from the citizen to the government.

While liberals are cheering the move, as it removes a barrier to entry into the voting market — one whose origins lie in the Jim Crow era — it’s important to remember that simply removing barriers and saying “go” isn’t enough: there is still much work to be done in ensuring that citizens actually participate in the electoral process.

Statistically speaking, representative democracy is only representative if it encourages equal and open participation by its citizens. While the New Motor Voter law is a move toward more equal and open participation, as voter registration is an unnecessary and unequal hindrance on political expression, there are still a number of steps we should take on an institutional level that would increase participation.

This is especially true since registration is not the be-all, end-all guarantee of turnout. Following the passage of the National Voter Registration Act in 1993 — which allowed citizens to register to vote when applying for public assistance, updating their driver’s licenses or conducting other routine business with the government — voter turnout only increased marginally. To be fair, it still increased, but it also didn’t come anywhere near closing the massive participation gap between America and other industrialized democracies.

So, in light of Oregon’s move toward expanding ballot access, let’s look at what concrete steps we could take to convert registration into actual participation.

1. Move away from Election Days

Setting Election Day to be the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November was a revolutionary expansion of the franchise…in 1845. However, 21st Century lifestyles and economies make holding elections on one weekday – and not making that day a national holiday – absurdly outdated. Even if you’re registered to vote, it doesn’t mean much if your boss won’t give you time off to actually go to your polling place.

Freedmen at a voter registration office, via Shutterstock

Freedmen at a Georgia voter registration office in 1867, via Shutterstock

Going beyond giving workers Election Day off, establishing a voting week would give people the flexibility to vote on their own schedule. Of course, an additional and more effective step toward expanding ballot access would be to make voting by mail a national standard. States that have adopted this system consistently see higher levels of turnout than the rest of the country. Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which currently administer elections by mail, all have higher general election turnout than the national average.

In addition to expanding access, voting by mail is also far cheaper and efficient than taking the time and money necessary to administer elections in person.

Finally, if snail-mail seems too 20th Century for us, we can always try using some of our fancy new technology to help us increase participation. After all, if Estonia can administer online elections, why can’t we?

2. Voting should be compulsory, and citizens should be fine with it

On Saturday, with the Edmund Pettis Bridge in the background, President Obama traveled to Selma with John Lewis to honor the protesters who had, 50 years prior, endured the worst of America in order to win the right to vote. A lot has changed since then: Racism isn’t the (explicit) law of the land, but participation by those who are eligible to vote are at staggeringly low levels. The President was right to challenge all of us when he said:

Even if every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

When you don’t vote, your community loses out. If you own a small business and your local taxes are too high, but you don’t vote, you’re doing a disservice to the owner of another small business down the street who has the same concern. If you want a better school system for your kids, but you don’t vote, your neighbors who also care about better schools are that much less likely to get what you both want.

And even if you don’t want to vote for a Democrat or Republican, your fellow voters who aren’t affiliated with a major party lose their strength in numbers if you sit out. Communities need an accurate measure of the “none of the above” caucus. When dissatisfied voters abstain instead of voicing their dissatisfaction by voting for a third party or write-in candidate – or, if they live in Nevada, actually voting for “none of the above” – they inadvertently endorse the status quo by inflating the vote share of the eventual winner.

This being the case, we should follow Australia’s (and 11 other countries’) lead and make voting mandatory. As mentioned above, voting is a responsibility as well a right, and your whole community loses out when you don’t cast a ballot. Again, you’re more than welcome to vote for a third party candidate or write in Thomas Jefferson, but your community needs an accurate accounting of its preferences and so you need to show up.

What’s more, mandatory voting neutralizes the fringes, as parties no longer need to mobilize their base with wedge issues. In other words, it would take power away from extreme interest groups like the NRA and Family Research Council, whose members would turn out to vote for Republicans regardless as to whether they passed the ideological litmus test currently required to get them mobilized.

Oregon’s move to universal voter registration should be applauded, and I did take a moment to celebrate when I heard of the bill’s passage. But let’s not hold this accomplishment up as the be-all, end-all of voting reforms that will heal our body politic once and for all. Let’s continue the work of forming a more perfect union together – by seeking universal participation so we can finally hear the voices of millions of Americans who have remained quiet for far too long.

Josh is a data analyst with expertise in grassroots engagement for national and local politics and a particular interest in the behavioral psychology of voting and civic engagement. He spent five years working in northern and southwest Virginia for for candidates from Blacksburg Town Council to President of the United States. In 2013 he ran a campaign that registered over 3,000 Virginia Tech students to vote for state and local candidates and tested innovative messaging and communications tactics to persuade them to make their voices heard on election day.

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