Republicans in West Virginia did an uncharacteristic thing last month: They made registering to vote easier, rather than more difficult.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) signed a voter identification and automatic registration bill sent to him by the Republican-controlled legislature on April 1, making the state just the third in the nation to pass an automatic voter registration law.
The law Tomblin signed was an unusual coupling of voter identification, a measure pushed by Republicans that Democrats tend to oppose, with automatic registration, in which the inverse scenario has played out. Automatic registration has gained momentum after Oregon and California became the first and second states to pass it last year. (New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar bill passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in November.)
Automatic registration, which shifts the burden of registration from the voter to the state, has the potential to dramatically increase registration rates while improving accuracy and saving states money. Under an automatic registration system, state agencies initiate the registration process when citizens interact with their offices. Citizens are given the opportunity to opt out of being registered. The federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires states to give citizens the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for a new or renewed driver’s license, but voting rights groups have had to sue various states for failing to adhere to that law's provisions.
Registering voters automatically has become a popular cause for Democrats across the country. President Barack Obama called on lawmakers in Illinois to help make automatic registration “the new norm across America” in February. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have also spoken in favor of the proposal, while Democrats in Congress have introduced proposals of their own. Twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia have considered automatic registration measures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
But Republicans have generally been opposed to automatic registration, arguing that it would endanger voters’ privacy, exclusively benefit Democrats, waste government resources and lead to the accidental registration of noncitizens.
Republicans in West Virginia didn’t offer that litany of objections when the measure came up for a vote last month.
“If you’re making an argument against it, I don’t know what it is,” said state Sen. Craig Blair, the GOP’s majority whip. “When you’re automatically registered to vote, that makes your life easier … It does away with the argument that we’re trying to suppress the vote, because it’s not true.”
(When HuffPost asked Blair if he had a message for Republicans opposed to automatic registration in other states, he shied away from encouraging them to follow West Virginia’s lead, saying each state has its own unique circumstances.)
State Sen. Charles Trump (R) claimed he hadn’t heard the issue inspire rancorous debates in other state legislatures.
“It surprises me a little bit to hear you tell me that it was controversial or a partisan issue in other places, I don’t see it as that -- when people overthink, 'Does this give an advantage to one side or another,' they’re wrong as often as they’re correct, and that sort of thinking is not where we were and not where I was,” he told HuffPost. “All I can say on that is that the Republican caucus ... is interested in making sure that it is easy for people to vote. We don’t have any agenda other than that.”
The story in West Virginia began earlier this year, when Republicans in the House of Delegates advanced a voter ID measure on a party-line vote. The GOP argues that requiring voters to show a piece of photo identification in order to vote protects against fraud. Democrats, on the other hand, say that in-person impersonation fraud is exceedingly rare, if not virtually nonexistent, and that voter ID laws depress turnout among those who who are less likely to possess an acceptable form of ID, such as low-income voters, students, racial minorities, voters with disabilities and seniors.
"The Republican caucus ... is interested in making sure that it is easy for people to vote. We don’t have any agenda other than that.” West Virginia State Sen. Charles Trump (R)
At that time, an amendment proposed by Democrats to implement automatic voter registration failed. But as Democrats successfully proposed expanding the list of forms of identification that would qualify as voter ID, they found Republicans open to the idea of automatic registration.
“It totally surprised me in that there was no real fight or pushback on either of the two fronts -- expanding the IDs, or having the automatic registration,” said state Sen. Corey Palumbo (D). “I was expecting it to be more of a contentious, partisan battle … There clearly was not a big fuss about [automatic registration] and my best guess is it was probably because it was done in the context of a voter ID bill, which [Republicans] by and large very much wanted.”
West Virginia’s voter ID law is relatively less restrictive than those in other states. It allows for student IDs, bank statements, health insurance cards and utility bills, along with driver’s licenses.
Patrick Hickey, an assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University, guessed that Republicans in the state legislature were abiding by the state’s reputation for fairness
“It’s a small state and relatively friendly so you see less partisanship in the process than you do in other states," he said. "Republicans here kinda thought, ‘OK, that sounds reasonable, let’s do that.'”
Democrats in other states could be inspired to bargain for automatic registration like they did in West Virginia. Republicans control 70 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers, so if West Virginia doesn’t prove to be an anomaly, the marriage of voting restrictions with automatic registration to temper their impact could come up again soon.