A new plan from Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke to increase voter registration by 50 million people could be a meaningful step toward increased turnout, according to experts. But first, it would need to get past opposition from state leaders who may not want to give up control of the process.
O’Rourke announced his proposals to increase the number of ballots cast in 2024 by 35 million new voters as part of a voting rights plan released on Wednesday. The plan also includes challenges to “draconian” voter ID laws and term limits on Congress, which he said limit voter engagement.
O’Rourke told CBS on June 5 that his views on voting rights were shaped by his home state’s dismal voter turnout ranking of 50th before the 2018 election, when he unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). He said the ranking was in part due to constituents being “drawn out” of districts, referencing a 2017 court ruling that found that legislators had drawn districts discriminatorily based on race or ethnicity.
“If we have in fact drawn people out and gotten to really terrible levels of voter participation, then the answer to that has to be drawing people in,” he said.
O’Rourke’s plan would automatically register voters electronically when they “do business with a government office,” a policy first implemented in Oregon in 2016, quadrupling DMV registration rates. He also proposes pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds. It would also implement same-day registration, which is already instituted in 20 states and Washington, D.C., nationwide.
The implementation of same-day and automatic voter registration, an effective and technologically feasible measure according to experts, would likely have positive impact on voter registration numbers, but they warned the policies will face their biggest challenge politically in reaching all 50 states.
This tension in control over voting exists even on the state level. “One of the reasons we don’t have same-day registration in many states is that the individual counties are opposed to the state — much less the national government — getting involved,” said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and professor of political science and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
If all 50 states did participate, O’Rourke’s goal of 50 million new registered voters seems plausible, according to Barry Burden, professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It would require 21% of eligible voters to register.
“[These policies] tend to be win-win proposals in the states they’ve been adopted,” Burden said, noting that they save the state money and empower voters. They are also more secure than voter registration drives and other efforts by third-party groups, he said.
Same-day registration has existed in the United States since the mid ’70s, and has prompted an increase in registration by several percentage points, according to Burden. In particular, its effect is larger for those who are registering for the first time, like young people.
From 45th in the US in 2014, Utah rose to 13th in voter turnout in 2018 following its implementation of same-day registration and vote-at-home voting in all counties. But in O’Rourke’s home state, Texas, which requires voters to register four weeks before Election Day, turnout was 48.4%, over 7 percent lower than states that had same-day registration.
O’Rourke’s registration proposals are feasible based on technology that already exists, Brady said, citing banks that allow for conducting transactions around the world. And the more states that implement these policies, he added, the more effective they are.
The plan relies on information the government has access to from multiple government agencies, likely including, for instance, the DMV, the United States Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Selective Service.
But even automatic voter registration doesn’t mean perfect registration rates.
“A state can only register a person if they have some information about them,” Burden said, pointing out that residents who do not have licenses, for example, would be left out.
Furthermore, both automatic and same-day registration increase registered voters but they do not address racial discrepancies in voter turnout, said Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Even if all 50 states adopted these policies, he explained, to encourage participation, “we have to encourage more equity in a whole range of other dimensions.”
Hutchings clarified that this concern does not mean these efforts, including some of O’Rourke’s other proposals like challenging voter ID laws amending Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to confront purportedly race-neutral policies with disproportionate impact on racial minorities, should not be pursued — he considers them “meaningful.”
“But even if we did all those things, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans would still vote at a much lower rate than whites,” he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, as Harry Brady.