Advocates of automatic voter registration won two legislative battles in Oregon and California this year, and lost another in New Jersey when GOP Governor Chris Christie vetoed automatic registration legislation last month.
Now the question is whether 18 states mulling a variety of automatic voter registration bills will approve or reject those proposals. The bills would in one form or another allow government agencies to transfer voter eligibility information to state election officials, who would confirm and register eligible voters, excluding any who chose to remain off the rolls.
The push for automatic registration comes at a time when voting rights advocates are contending with state-based initiatives around the country that erect a variety of barriers to the polls. These include voting restrictions in North Carolina that have become the subject of a federal challenge.
It’s also the first presidential election since the Supreme Court in 2013 reversed key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Congressional Democrats have proposed legislation that would reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and restore voter protections, but it has languished on Capitol Hill.
As an antidote to state-based initiatives that make it harder for voters to cast ballots, automatic voter registration holds out the promise of expanding the electorate. Proponents of automatic registration, who include Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders, say it saves money, reduces administrative hassles, and improves the accuracy of the voter rolls.
Automatic voter registration legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, but as with Voting Rights Act reauthorization, no one expects quick action on Capitol Hill.
By contrast, more than a half-dozen states and the District of Columbia are considering automatic voter registration legislation that could become law in 2016. In March of this year, Oregon became the first state to enact automatic voter registration. Next came California, which approved automatic registration in October. Similar proposals are pending in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.
Key states with voter registration battles on the horizon include:
New Jersey – Advocates backing the state’s Democracy Act legislation pledged from the start that if Christie vetoed it, they would move forward with a ballot initiative to enact it via a constitutional amendment. New Jersey lawmakers have publicly committed to taking that step. Their challenge is to reduce over 70 pages of legislation into succinct ballot initiative language for voters to digest. The key question is which provisions from the original bill will remain, but advocates are optimistic. To get on the ballot in November of 2016, a resolution must be introduced and approved by a three-fifths majority in both legislative houses. If this doesn’t happen, the resolution can get on the ballot in November of 2017 if both houses approve it by a simple majority in two consecutive years.
Illinois – Prairie State lawmakers introduced an automatic voter registration bill in May, and began hearing official testimony in October. This follows the enactment of a bill in January that expanded early voting and made same‑day registration permanent, institutionalizing a pilot program launched in November of 2014. The state already approved online voter registration in 2013, setting the stage for quick action on automatic voter registration.
Alaska – In August, Lieutenant Governor Byron Malloy certified a ballot petition that may ultimately lead Alaska to implement automatic voter registration through the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend program as opposed to through its driver’s license offices. (Most of the pending bills propose registering voters automatically through their motor vehicle departments.) Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend program allocates annual portions of the state’s oil revenues to eligible Alaskans who qualify through a stringent application process. To secure a place on the state’s November 2016 ballot, advocates must now gather signatures that equal at least 10 percent of the voter turnout from the state’s most recent election, and from at least 30 of Alaska’s 40 House of Representative districts. The Alaska proposal is important because it could serve as a model for how to automatically register voters through government agencies other than motor vehicle departments, such as the U.S. Postal Service and social services offices doling out Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.