Should Voter Registration Be Automatic?

Oregon’s Secretary of State Kate Brown is seeking to make voter registration of individuals automatic. Brown’s plan, would allow Oregon to automatically register new voters at the time they apply for a driver’s license. Those new voters would initially be registered as unaffiliated with any political party. At a later date, they’d receive a postcard by mail allowing them to choose a party affiliation or opt out of voter registration altogether, should they desire.

Since 1998, Oregon has had a unique voting system in place whereby people registered voters receive ballots in the mail, which they can return by mail or drop off at designated sites. Oregon has one of the highest voting rates in the country but 25% of eligible voters are not registered to vote.

If approved, Oregon will become the first state in the country to automatically register people to vote.

As pointed out in a article critics argue that it shouldn’t necessarily be easy to register to vote. “What we really need is an American electorate that takes the time to study the issues,” says Greg Leo, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party. “All of these things move away from that. We make it so easy for people to participate that I worry they won’t take the time to be an informed voter and to really study the issues.” Leo says it’s not just the act of voting that’s an important responsibility of citizenship — but the act of registering to vote is meaningful too, and the government shouldn’t take it upon itself to handle it.

What do you think about automatic registration of people when they apply for a drivers license?

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Peter Sperry

I am not sure I see the point of voter registration at all anymore. Originally, the goal was to develop a list that could be used to ensure that each legal citizen was able to vote once and only once in each election cycle. Most jurisdictions no longer care if voters are citizens or how often they vote during an election cycle. Voter fraud is not merely tolerated, it is actively encouraged and any efforts to limit voter fraud will bring down the full wrath of the Justice Department. So what is the point of voter registration? Just open the polls and let any one who shows up go ahead and vote. Jurisdictions could also save voter the effort of traveling to 10 or 15 polling places on Election Day by just allowing them to cast as many ballots as they want at a single polling place.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I think it should be automatic…but then we need to educate people through regular messaging after they’re signed up such that they’re prepared to exercise that right when the time comes…and that’s not just for new voters, but for all voters. Proactively send them non-partisan sites that lay out the issues and where candidates fall. Tell them where their polling places are (several times) as the day approaches.

All too often we leave this role to the parties and candidates – government can take a more active role without being partisan!

Ruth Collins

I like the idea of offering voter registration when renewing their driver’s license, but I think it should be optional, not automatic. There are people who don’t want to vote or are not informed enough on the issues to vote intelligently. Voting is a right but also a big responsiblity of knowing what you are voting for or against. Voters need to be able to gain unbiased information on the issues and canidates.

Gerard R. Wenham

If each legal citizen should be able to vote once and only once, why are the 600,000 plus residents of DC denied the right to an equal vote? Are they considered illegals? Non-citizens? Criminals? Too stupid? Too untrustworthy?

At the very least, individual DC residents could be allowed to declare affiliation or affinity with a particular state, and vote there absentee, as is done with other American expatriates who live outside the fifty states.

Erick Emde

@Peter Sperry, I’m glad you mentioned this. Not because I’m convinced that it is an problem, but because I know there are a lot of people who think it is. And I’m not trying to start a flame war. If people are really voting fraudulently in numbers significant enough to matter to the outcome of an election, I want it stopped. But from what I’ve heard, that’s just not the case. But that’s just it, it’s just “from what I’ve heard”, and I’ll bet it’s the same for you. I can’t point to any real data to back up either side. Can you (or anyone else on the list). How do we get picture of the actual data, unfiltered by either the “liberal media” or the “right wing noise machine”?

That was my question, now here’s my opinion on the topic of the post:

I think that the more people that are lawfully registered to vote, the better, and the easier it is to register, the better. However, this seems to run counter to most of the new voter registration laws, which seem mainly designed to prevent registration of whatever population wasn’t likely to vote for the people who wrote the law. I know that has been the effect of the law in my state. I personally know two elderly people who had to arrange transportation to the registration office twice in order to keep their right to vote. These were people who had the resources to do this, but what if they were poor and/or lived far from the registration office and/or didn’t have people to take them or couldn’t get the documentation required? How many people just don’t try because the barriers are too high? Going back to my question at the beginning, are there really enough people registering fraudulently to justify disenfrancising people like my mother or my former minister?

Diane Lucas

@Peter Sperry – As a poll worker for the last several elections, I can assure you that every effort is made to ensure that people who come to the poll are given their right to vote, and to ensure that they are voting only once. Now, I won’t say that they didn’t register in another state and ran there to vote again, but within this county, they have only one chance.

To the general article, I think auto registration is an excellent idea. It reinforces for people the idea that they have the right to vote, and maybe they will exercise it.

@Erick – agree that we need demonstrated proof that there is fraud going on – here in PA there was a lot of rhetoric about voter fraud, but never any documented proof. The voter ID law seems to be a way to disenfranchise those who are expected to vote against the law proposers.

Erick Emde

@Diane – One reasonable question I’ve heard is, “How do you kow there isn’t a problem if you aren’t checking?”

Diane Lucas

@Erick – Concur that’s a good question. I can only go by my limited experieince in a relatively small precinct that fraud isn’t easy with all the checks and balances that go on in allowing someone to vote. If someone comes in a second time, they will be recognized. Also, these are our neighbors – many times we know them by sight. In the cities, it may be more difficult.

If it is such a big problem, let’s use the system used in other countries – dip your finger into indelible ink to show that you voted – no second chances.

I believe the real problem is that people don’t vote because they think they cannot make any difference. More people don’t vote, than vote more than once…

John L. Waid

No. Voting is a privilege, a personal matter. More people should vote. People around the world are defying mad bombers to vote and turn out in the 90%s. We are so complacent we are lucky to get 50% of the voters to vote. Whether or not people are registered, they still have to get out and vote. Registration is not the issue — participation in the process is.

A state’s DMV is not equipped to handle the barrage of new paperwork they will have to deal with even if all they do is turn over the registrations to the secretary of state. More employees will be needed just to process the paperwork at both the DMV and the SOS.

When politicians start saying “we need to register more voters,” what they really mean is “we need to register more voters of our party.” Politicians should not be meddling in personal choices. The freedom to vote also entails the freedom not to vote. Once government starts down that slope, where do they stop? What if people do not send the forms back? Do they remain unaffiliated forever? Does government instead parcel out party affiliation in order to clear its records? What if voter participation does not increase? Do they pass some other law designed to prod people to the polls?

Whether we like the choice or not, whether to vote is the people’s choice, not that of politicians.

J. Michael Munger

I’m all about having more connected people and a more participatory democracy… in a perfect world. Too often those who do not vote are part of the “Silent [moderate] Majority” who cannot bring themselves to choose between the lesser of two evils—if they even have two to choose from. So many offices at all levels are unopposed.
If we could overcome Duverger’s Law and get more than just two political parties, then I’d be all for compulsory voting. But until then no one should should feel compelled to make an impossible decision.

John L. Waid

Excellent point, Michael, one which politicans tend to ignore in their discussions about voter “participation.” In how many states are the legislative districts so badly gerrymandered that voters see participation as a futile gesture. In California, Republicans make up about 45% of the registered voters, but Democrats control 66% of the Legislature. this is not peculiar to a Democrat-controlled state, of course.

Also not factored in is voter frustration with the courts. The losers in an election, at least as to ballot propositions, whine to the courts which all too often overturn the voters’ wishes. All power in this country is supposed to come from the people. People ask why they should vote if their votes will just be negated by the courts.

Ami Wazlawik

I like the idea. I don’t see any harm in registering people automatically. The fear that people who don’t care about voting will suddenly care because they’re automatically registered seems unfounded to me. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires DMVs to provide voter registration services to folks who apply for or renew a driver’s license – they’ve been doing so for years, so I don’t see how it will put any further burden on DMV staff. It’s not clear from the article that they would even be using the paper applications, but here in Minnesota it takes 10 or 15 minutes to fill out a voter application, and the document is simply folded and stamped before being sent to the SOS office.

John L. Waid

That may work in Minnesota, but I suspect in more populous states the burdens on the DMV would be much greater. Where I live, the wait for DMV services can be so long that people will drive 30 miles to another DMV that is much less used. You are probably right — the burdens will vary with the state.

BTW, my understanding of the so-called Motor Voter Act is that the states are prohibited from verifying any of the voter registration information their DMV’s receive. The DMV does not go out in the ordinary course of its business and verify if a driver’s license registrant in fact lives where he says he does and, if my information is correct, the state cannot verify the voter registration information. A lot of dead people vote that way.

I suppose that my concern is that, as I said below, this is a personal choice and none of the politicians’ business. When politicians stick their fingers into a political pie, they do not do it out of altruism. There is something in it for themselves. If people don’t want to register to vote, that is their lookout, and they should not be registered against their will. They shyould vote, but they cannot be forced to. This sort of thing smacks more of polticians wanting to feel good about themselves rather than any desire to “fix” a “problem.”

John L. Waid

Exaclty, Gerard. So what is the purpose of this bill? It is just politicians appearing to “do something” regarding an issue about which they can really do nothing so that they feel better about themselves? Or is there some other reason?

Gerard R. Wenham

On principle (Legitimacy flows from the Consent of the Governed), everyone who is eligible should be permitted to vote. A logistically necessary step in managing that process and making that possible is voter registration. That is a function of government. It sounds like the “problem” near you is a poorly managed DMV, if people feel the need to go to another DMV office 30 miles away. The DMV ought not be the ONLY place to register to vote, either.

But what do I know, right? I live in DC, and therefore I am deemed (by the other 99.8 percent of the country) to be too stupid and/or too untrustworthy to have an equal vote. Go figure.

John L. Waid

Your comment must be really important. GovLoop sent me two e-mails on it.

I agree. Everyone who is eligible is permitted to register already. The issue here is should people be registered involuntarily.

The issues with our DMV are not peculiar to it. All urban DMV’s in my state have these issues. The great DMV god in the capital has adopted numerous changes to facilitate service, and they really have worked hard to move people through. Staffing reductions and the financial malaise that affects state government in general have, however, negated many of these changes. The more rural offices simply have fewer people to serve, maybe much like Ami’s DMV. One more thing for them to do can’t help. If it does not in reality accomplish anything, why do it? After 40 years in federal and state civil service, I am suspicious of anything that seems designed to accomplish a social good. There is always something in it for the politicians promoting the idea, or they would not promote it.

Gerard R. Wenham

Really? “I am suspicious of anything that seems designed to accomplish a social good.” Anything?

What about that phrase in the Constitution, “promote the general welfare”? You sound a bit too suspicious to me….

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

John L. Waid

“General welfare,” along with “social good,” being in the eye of the beholder, I am suspicious when politicians say they are going to take care of me whether I want them to or not. If I choose not to register to vote, that is no one’s business but my own, least of all the Legislature’s. I do vote, and, while I do think everyone should, it is their right to not vote. I ask again, what is the point of registering people involuntarily simply because, in the view of the politicians in the Legislature, not “enough” people register voluntarily?

Failing to register is a bad idea, I agree. There is, however, only so much government can and should do to protect people from themselves. To me, this idea falls into that bag.

Michael J. Kelleher

First of all, requiring people to register to vote is against the constitution. Everybody has a right to say no to something that is optional. Secondly, the critics are wrong, because the majority of eligible voters don’t take the time to understand the issues. If they did, maybe there would be less corruption in Washington, DC, as well in state and local governments.

Carol Kruse

Gee, I thought I read something about everyone being able to “opt out of registration altogether.” Yes, it was after-the-fact, and I grudgingly acquiesce to some of John’s cynical perspective that, over time, opting out could get lost in red tape and bureaucracy and forgetful voters, and effectively be perceived as “forced” registration. But hey, Ruth Collins’ suggestion takes care of ALL that angst — make registration at the time of driver licensing OPTIONAL. Easy!

Speaking of easy, why is voter registration still a paper/envelope process? Why not have driver’s license applicants enter all their information at an electronic kiosk (information could include both that for the license and for the registration), and when they push “submit” the license information goes to the Motor Vehicle officers and the voting info goes to the appropriate county clerk, or whomever. And couldn’t software be developed that would cross-check voter registration info with other records (utility bill addresses, for ex) and do at least most of the voter registration verification tasks?

More than easy voter registration, I’m quite concerned about the uninformed voter, as many of you have brought up. I really like Andy K’s idea about using impartial, electronically-delivered voter education on issues, candidates, etc. to inform voters. That would be voluntary, granted, but I think a lot of voters would take the time to take advantage of such a service if it were available on their phones, tablets, TVs, etc. Limiting campaign expenditures is another personally favorite solution, for all the reasons we saw in the last Presidential campaign. But, Cynical Me has to agree to some extent with Michael Munger’s assessment that people have just given up because neither evil is lesser-enough to be a palatable choice.

And speaking of voting/politics/bureaucracies and using electronics to make government more efficient….. how about we require Congressional members to live in their home districts and conduct business via the Internet? They could only convene in DC 2 or 3 times a year, limited to a few days at a time, maybe for inaugurations or such. And a friend of mine took that even further….how about having American citizens vote on bills presented by Congressional members, using computers/tablets/telephones? Talk about a participatory democracy!

Comments, thoughts?

John L. Waid

I love Carol’s last idea. Once people get ensconced in the beltway a mentality sets in and they become divorced from their constituents. “Visits” home are mostly fund-raisers for their next campaigns. Stay home and effectively be a part-time Legislature. Live with some of the laws you enact, and maybe the really stupid ideas wouldn’t get enacted (Congress would have to be subject to the laws they enact for the rest of us; this enacting of laws for the rest of us but exempting themselves has to stop).

In Great Britain, Members of Parliament are expected to have outside businesses. Most of them do not live in their districts. They are expected to continue to live in the real world. POarliament doesn’t meet until 1 PM so give the MP’s time to attend to their businesses in the morning.