Senior members of Congress last week introduced a bill that would automatically register Americans to vote when they interact with a wide range of government agencies, unless they decline. The reform not only expands access to the most fundamental right in our democracy and increases participation, it also reduces mistakes on the rolls and enhances the security of voting infrastructure. In short, it brings election administration into the 21st Century.
The initiative, led by Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), comes amid increased momentum for automatic registration at the state level. Eight states and the District of Columbia have approved the policy, and 32 states have introduced bills to implement or expand the reform in 2017. Oregon — the first state to jump on board — has already fully implemented automatic registration, and early research on its effects on turnout is encouraging.
One reason the reform has such broad backing is because it makes common-sense, and sorely needed, changes. Automatic registration updates the often antiquated, paper-based system many states use today in two key ways. First, it makes the transfer of voter information between a government office and election officials electronic, meaning the process is more seamless and up-to-date, and less error prone. Second, it encourages participation by making registration the default option. Together, these tweaks have the potential to increase registration rates, make the voter rolls more secure, and save money.
The recent tide of support in the states has also proven to transcend party lines. Late last month, the Illinois state legislature sent an automatic registration bill to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner with unanimous support in both chambers. About one year earlier, the West Virginia and Vermont legislatures both passed the policy, even though the former is dominated by Republicans and the latter by Democrats and Progressive Party members.
Secretaries of State, who in many states function as the chief election administrator, of both political parties have helped lead efforts to adopt the reform. For example, in October 2015, Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) heralded his state’s new automatic registration law, declaring, “Citizens should not be required to opt in to their fundamental right to vote.” And this year, Kim Wyman (R-Wash.) supported an AVR bill introduced in her state’s legislature.
The current political environment is an especially good time for Congress to revisit the architecture of our voting systems. Last week, a leaked top-secret NSA report highlighted how tempting it would be for those interested in undermining our democracy — Russia, or any other actors — to target our elections, including our voter registration databases. Automatic registration reduces the chances for fraud by allowing states to keep more accurate and up-to-date lists of registered voters.
In a divided country, it’s tough to find an initiative that doesn’t fall victim to partisan squabbles. But automatic voter registration’s continued success in states red, blue, and purple is proof positive of its appeal above party. And the accurate, up-to-date, and inclusive voter rolls it supports are a key way we can support civic participation while keeping elections secure. The time has come for national action to make this reform the reality for all eligible American voters.