WASHINGTON ― A bill introduced this week in Congress could automatically make as many as 50 million people eligible to join the electorate.
Democratic lawmakers proposed what they call the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 to streamline the registration process.
Voter turnout in the U.S. typically falls behind other developed countries. In 2014, 37 percent of Americans showed up to the polls, the lowest voter turnout in the U.S. in more than 70 years, according to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Our system is broken and in need of dire repair,” Clarke told The Huffington Post. “This bill is one step that Congress can take to meaningfully make it easier for Americans to participate in elections in our country.”
Five states ― California, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia ― already have automatic voter registration laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), complements the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which requires certain government offices to offer voter registration to people signing up for public benefits or a driver’s license, for example.
Under the proposed legislation, citizens seeking assistance at these or other government agencies — whether they’re renewing their drivers license, applying for public benefits, looking to register a firearm or signing up for classes at a public college — will be automatically registered to vote. If someone so chooses, they may decline the registration.
The goal is to cut the hassle from the registration process and expand voting accessibility, Clarke said.
States like New York require voters to register weeks ahead of Election Day, and deadlines come and go without notice for some potential voters. Even Donald Trump’s children, Ivanka and Eric, missed the deadline, barring them from casting ballots for their father during New York’s primary.
But voting barriers typically hit low-income or minority voters hardest. In 2012, fewer than half of people registered to vote who had an income of $20,000 or less showed up at polls, compared with 77 percent of voters with incomes over $75,000.
Socioeconomic factors help explain this disparity, including lack of transportation, the high cost of a government-issued I.D., demanding work schedules, or long lines at the polls.
Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans have the lowest voter turnout rates among all racial groups in the U.S., according to 2014 census data. But Asian- Americans who are registered to vote have turnout rates as high as white and black Americans, underscoring how removing the registration hassle may make a difference.
“We do know that once Asian-Americans register, they turn out to vote at rates comparable to non-Hispanic whites,” said Terry Ao Minnis, Director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “That’s the people who previously took the steps to register,”
However, filling out a voter registration form presents a layer of difficulty, especially for the one-third of Asian-Americans with limited English proficiency, Minnis added.
“For Asian-Americans, voter registration is the biggest barrier after citizenship when it comes to closing the voting gap,” Alton Wang, communications and development associate at Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, told The Huffington Post.
Clarke said the legislation could serve as a countermeasure to the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted aspects of the Voting Rights Act. After the decision, states like Texas, North Carolina and Georgia implemented voter ID laws and other measures that made it harder to vote. Unless lower courts intervene, those restrictions may be in place for the first time in a presidential election.
“Our union can only become stronger and more representative with the participation of a broader electorate,” Leahy said in a statement.