WASHINGTON -- Automatic voter registration has become a zeitgeisty election reform for Democrats, since Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed the state's first-in-the-nation measure into law and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton advocated for the method. Now, a voting rights group is making the proposal the centerpiece of its 2016 effort.
The group, called iVote, will announce Monday that it will focus its efforts on creating campaigns to enact automatic voter registration laws in multiple states across the country, including swing states crucial to next year's presidential election. The group plans to spend six to seven figures on the campaign.
“We should be looking for ways to make it easier to vote and increase participation, not more burdensome to vote and suppress participation," said Ellen Kurz, iVote’s founder and president. "Automatic voter registration will be a monumental step in guaranteeing more voters have their voices heard on Election Day."
In March, Oregon adopted legislation that will automatically register eligible Oregonians through the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Over 300,000 Oregonians are expected to be added to the rolls with universal registration. The state will notify voters that they have been registered and give them the opportunity to opt out before they are sent a ballot.
While automatic registration supporters say the goal of the legislation is to keep young voters, students and working families who move frequently from losing their right to vote, Republicans say such legislation endangers voters' privacy. Republicans also say that voter registration should be the voters' responsibility, rather than that of the government, suggesting that automatic registration would make voting too easy.
A June HuffPost/YouGov poll found that Republican support for automatic registration drops when respondents are told that Clinton backs such a proposal.
For Democrats, advocating for universal registration feels like a refreshingly proactive way to fight back against a wave of voting restrictions passed out of Republican-controlled state legislatures in the last five years. iVote says its campaign will initially focus on voter education in states like Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, though it will possibly broaden its activities to advocacy in states where Democrats have proposed legislation or have put automatic registration on the ballot.
“We can’t simply defend against the latest effort to suppress voter participation,” added iVote founding board member Jeremy Bird, who was President Barack Obama's national field director in 2012. "We must go on offense to expand access to voting because the best defense is a good offense."
It remains to be seen whether iVote will become a significant player in a voting rights landscape that already includes multiple advocacy organizations. The group's focus on electing Democratic secretaries of state wasn't successful in last year's midterm elections as the four candidates the organization backed all lost to Republicans. (iVote says that its efforts brought historic investment and attention to the races.)
The group may find that their financial help is welcome in states like New Jersey, where legislators and progressive groups are considering putting a package of voting access measures, including automatic registration, on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November 2016 if Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoes the measures, as he is expected to.