Abolish Voter Registration Altogether?

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In the same week that New Mexico’s legislature passed a restrictive mandatory photo voter ID bill through the House of Representatives, Oregon did something extraordinary that will do wonders in the effort to increase civic participation. From Al Jazeera America:

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed legislation Monday making Oregon the first state to have automatic voter registration, potentially adding 300,000 new voters to state rolls.

The “motor voter” legislation will use state Department of Motor Vehicles data to automatically register eligible voters whose information is contained in the DMV system, with a 21-day opt-out period for those who wish to be taken off the registry.

As the Al Jazeera article notes, Oregon’s move comes as many other states are making it harder and harder for eligible voters to cast a ballot (since 2010, 22 states have tightened voter restrictions with 13 of those states passing mandatory photo voter ID laws).

Hundreds of thousands of eligible New Mexicans are not currently registered to vote. Adding even a fraction of the voters Oregon is poised to add here in New Mexico would be a wondrous win for democratic participation.

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon

New Mexico’s Secretary of State Dianna Duran, however, is no fan of election modernization policies and, as we have reported on frequently, has come under fire for her poor handling of New Mexico’s own “Motor Voter” program (along with a number of embarrassing incidents regarding voter purging, false claims of voter fraud, and arbitrarily changing election rules).

Under Secretary Duran, New Mexico ranks 48th in Motor Voter Act compliance, so we have a long road ahead of us if we’re ever going to achieve what Oregon did this week.

But an op-ed from Bloomberg News by Francis Barry this week poses an interesting question in light of Oregon’s new law: What if we abolished voter registration altogether?

Here are a few excerpts from Barry’s op-ed (but be sure to check out the entire piece HERE):

The civil rights marchers who were attacked in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 were attempting to register to vote. The question that people should be asking all these years later is: Why should anyone have to register at all?

On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill that eliminates the need for most citizens to submit registration forms to exercise their constitutional right to vote. That legislation, the first in the country, arises from a simple idea: Government should not force people to file more forms than necessary. (If you disagree, you may have a future career with the Internal Revenue Service.)

Because most individuals already document their citizenship when obtaining their driver’s license, state governments know that such people — so long as they’re at least 18 and have not lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction — are eligible to vote. It’s just a matter of sharing the information with the agency that oversees elections, which is what Oregon will begin doing.

To account for democracy’s deadbeats and delinquents, Oregon will send each unregistered citizen a notice that their registration will soon go into effect — and give those who wish to remain unregistered the opportunity to opt out, by returning a form. It’s basic behavioral economics: Make the preferred outcome the default option, with no action required. No one’s choice is taken away; it’s just that the choice has been flipped.

Automatic registration reduces the room for such errors, by cutting down on paperwork and improving the identity verification process. That, in turn, will strengthen integrity of the voter registration rolls and help prevent ineligible residents from casting ballots.

Democrats have downplayed the problem of noncitizens registering to vote. Now that they have a way to address it, they ought to acknowledge that the problem is real, and challenge Republicans to join them in solving it.

Automatic voter registration won’t guarantee higher turnout or better results for Democrats. But it will improve both ballot access and security — and spare people from another government form.