From Carter To California: Automatic Registration Is The New Endgame For Elections

California could automatically enroll millions of new voters -- but will they participate?
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (L) greets Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both support automatic registration.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (L) greets Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both support automatic registration.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977 with the conviction that it should be easier for citizens to register to vote. To accomplish that goal, he wrote to Democratic secretaries of state that year urging them to support legislation that would allow voters to register on Election Day.

“The continuing decline in American voter participation is a serious problem which calls for the attention of all of us in public life,” Carter wrote.

Advisers to Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale had concluded that Election Day registration, which they called “universal registration,” would boost low turnout rates. They cited laws passed in Minnesota and Wisconsin after the 1972 election that allowed citizens to register at the polls, which placed both states in the top five for highest turnout in 1976.

But tucked away in their correspondence about the election reform proposals was an acknowledgment that the United States’ neighbor to the north had made it even easier for citizens to vote, by registering them automatically with government data.

“You no doubt know that the Canadian system calls upon the government to register all citizens, in effect shifting the burden from the individual to the government,” Mondale's Chief of Staff Richard Moe wrote to Carter. “While Canada has had some apparent success with this system, there is little interest in pursuing it here and it is my judgment that the prospects of achieving Election Day registration are much greater, and, if achieved, that it would be more successful.”

Carter’s team went with Election Day registration knowing it could meet with opposition on the Hill. Even though bills to mandate Election Day registration were introduced in Congress with Republican co-sponsors -- such bipartisanship on voting rights would be astonishing today -- the legislation was abandoned when it ran into roadblocks thrown up by conservatives like Ronald Reagan.

Twelve states still passed their own Election Day registration laws after Carter highlighted the issue. But support for voter registration at the polls continues to split along party lines. Many state legislatures after the 2010 Republican sweep passed new voting restrictions, including cutbacks to early voting and the elimination of same-day registration.

Democrats are now going on the offensive with automatic registration as their goal.

The roots of voter-initiated registration are found in the late nineteenth century, when it was used by states to make it harder for former slaves and new immigrants to vote. Most other industrialized democracies around the world, like Canada, register their voters, rather than having voters register themselves.

In 2005, Carter returned to the idea of automatic registration when he chaired a Commission on Federal Election Reform with former Secretary of State James Baker. The commission’s report recommended a “universal, state-based, top-down” registration system.

Automatic registration only gained real traction this year in March, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed the state’s first-in-the-nation automatic registration law. Supporters of the bill said it could potentially add up to 300,000 voters to the rolls by transmitting state Department of Motor Vehicles data to the secretary of state’s office. (Federal law already requires states to allow eligible voters to register while completing paperwork at the DMV or public assistance agencies.) Any Oregonian who doesn’t want to be registered can opt out within 21 days of receiving a notice that they will be added.

Republicans in the Oregon legislature were universally opposed to the legislation, arguing that it would violate people’s privacy and resembled government coercion. Other Republicans have argued that automatic registration risks adding non-citizens to the rolls.

Democrats have dismissed those claims, pointing out that no one is forcing citizens to vote and that electronically transferring data from one government agency to another is more secure than having individual citizens or civic groups collect registration forms that officials must then input by hand.

“Automated voter registration is actually a more secure way of doing things: [potential voters] have to demonstrate proof of age, the vast majority of time people are showing a birth certificate or a passport, which also reflects citizenship. That’s arguably more secure than someone checking a box under penalty of perjury,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told HuffPost.

Democratic lawmakers in 17 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Congress, have introduced their own automatic registration laws since Brown signed Oregon’s bill, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also advocated for automatic registration in a speech on voting rights in June, noting in particular the Oregon law. Clinton, who introduced an Election Day registration bill while she was a senator, called the nation’s voter registration system a “relic from an earlier age.”

Automatic registration now faces its biggest test yet in the nation’s most populous state. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is weighing whether to sign a bill passed by the state legislature earlier this month. He has until October 11 to make his decision, and has yet to give any indication as to which way he is leaning.

“Given what’s been happening in states across the country with reductions in early voting, voter ID laws, purging of voter rolls … as much as we need to continue to play defense on voting rights, this is how I choose to play offense on voting rights: by making it easier for people to get registered,” Padilla said. The secretary of state told HuffPost he couldn’t predict whether Brown would sign the bill.

Residents of California, which is already among the states that make voting the easiest, are widely supportive of automatic registration: Sixty-nine percent favor the idea, according to a survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

But with Oregon as the only American precedent, there's less consensus about how broadly the change would affect voter turnout.

Many experts predict that it may be more of a shot in the arm than a panacea. One study of voter registration drives in six cities found that about a quarter of newly registered voters ended up casting a ballot. Another found that states with easier registration processes can expect participation rates that are only 3 to 5 percent higher.

“If you just automatically registered everybody, we would expect probably a small increase, but we wouldn’t expect nirvana. We wouldn’t expect huge turnout. If you think about it, you’re registering the people who are already not connected with the political process,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, who emphasized a need for additional outreach to voters.

Approximately 7 million residents in the state are eligible but not registered to vote, which puts California's registration rate at 38th in U.S. While a third of registered voters who don’t usually make it to the polls cited time constraints or scheduling issues, according to the PPIC, just 17 percent of eligible, unregistered adults in the state attributed their lack of registration to similar reasons. Rather, 54 percent say either that they’re not interested or they lack confidence in elections.

From PPIC's survey of California voters.
From PPIC's survey of California voters.

One challenge in drawing more voters to the polls -- the state posted record-low turnout in last year’s midterms -- has been the absence of high-profile or competitive statewide elections. In 2014, Brown faced only a longshot challenge from Republican Neel Kashkari, with most of the down-ballot races gaining little attention.

Like the nation as a whole, the state has also struggled to engage its younger, lower-income and minority citizens, groups are more likely to be adversely affected by voting restrictions and to be overlooked by campaigns. Latinos and Asian Americans are the most rapidly-growing ethnic groups in California, but in 2014 only 17 percent of adult Latino citizens and 18 percent of adult Asian-American citizens voted -- rates considerably below the state average.

“Automatic registration will make voting easier. It will reduce a barrier that we know disproportionately impacts voters of color and young people, who are so numerous here in California,” Romero said. “But you still have to make people want to vote, and you still have to help guide them and teach them about that process.”

California’s current low registration “is about more than administrative hurdles,” Eric McGhee of the PPIC told members of the state senate earlier this year. “Many of the people who do not register are expressing a deeper disengagement from politics and public life ... Automatic registration would need to be followed up with constant engagement to truly leverage the new system. What it would do is ensure that something closer to 100 percent of California citizens would be available for engagement without any further administrative steps along the way.”

Proponents of automatic registration say it could redirect resources that currently go for registration and use them instead for encouraging turnout. With $10 million budgeted for voter registration, education and outreach, Los Angeles County, for instance, currently spends only $250,000 on outreach.

“Using efficient and effective tools for government to facilitate participation, I feel, is a mandate,” Padilla said. “Nobody that I’ve talked to publicly will say otherwise … You either agree or disagree with the fundamental premise that democracy works best when everyone participates.”

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