Supporting Universal Voter Registration Should Be a Bipartisan Effort

Voting booths in polling place
Voting booths in polling place

Regardless of where on the political spectrum you fall, we, as Americans who love and believe in democracy, can all agree that voting should be as easy as possible to do, right?

Obviously I'm being sarcastic here because it doesn't take more than a moment of searching on the Internet for anyone to find an article about an elected official in a state like Kansas *cough* Kris Kobach *cough* doing everything they possibly can to make it harder for people to take part in the voting process. It also won't take anyone very long to find a few articles about the idea of automatic universal voter registration.

As a native Kansan the idea of just automatically registering people to vote without making them submit a form and then jump through additional burdensome hoops seems as imaginary as a Hippogriff. However, Oregon and California have both done exactly that, and other states such as Maryland are looking to follow suit. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, implementing national automatic universal voter registration would add up to 50 million eligible voters to current voting rolls, save money, increase the accuracy of elections, and curb the potential for fraud and protect the integrity of our elections. While that sentence is likely to make Kris Kobach's head explode, it provides four good reasons as to why we should have a national universal automatic voter registration system but since Congress is... well, Congress, this is unlikely to ever happen and it provides four good reasons as to why states should do it themselves.

Growing up in a Republican dominated state I've heard every version of "Government is supposed to work for the people" that has ever been thought of. While Kansas republicans and I disagree about what exactly that looks like they aren't wrong. Government should work for the people and what better way to ensure that it is than by making it easier for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable. Every Election Day we see far too many stories about people showing up to vote only to find out that they aren't on the list, often because they've been wrongly deleted. We also see far too many stories about State passing legislation that only makes it harder for people to vote. Every citizen who is eligible to vote should be able to. Rather than requiring them to submit a form or show ID or provide a copy of their birth certificate, we should be encouraging them to take part in the process and doing everything we can to make it easier for them to do so. Universal automatic voter registration should be a no-brainer, elected officials and political hacks from all ideologies should come together and unequivocally say that we want to make it easier for our citizens to vote and then do it.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Earlier this month when the Baltimore Sun published a story about Maryland lawmakers considering the effort, the Maryland GOP's response was literally saying "This is a joke," and "God forbid they actually go out there and register people to vote." Interestingly enough a number of seemingly outraged Redditors in r/Maryland held similar opinions about the idea, saying that it would weaken our elections and that it would mean that more uninformed and uneducated people would vote. To me, these sound a lot like the arguments against eliminating poll taxes and literacy tests used to keep African Americans from contributing to the political process, but that's not the point of this post.

Many reasonable people have said they see nothing wrong with requiring people to submit a simple form in order to be registered to vote, and maybe when considering that idea in a vacuum there isn't anything wrong with it. However in the real world things are never as simple as they seem and the amount of paperwork associated with registering voters presents a much larger problem than one might think. As written by Heather Gerken in DEMOCRACY: A Journal of Ideas, in 2013:

"Between the 2006 and 2008 elections, for instance, states had to process 60 million registration applications, most of them on paper. The voter's information is then entered manually into a statewide database. Errors inevitably occur along the way. Moreover, most states demand that voters notify their election office of a change of address, and few jurisdictions have an adequate system for taking dead people off the rolls. The result is that many statewide lists are filled not just with errors but with "deadwood" (registrations that are no long valid). Third-party groups compound the heavy costs associated with this paper-driven process. Because we place the burden on individuals to register themselves, third parties inevitably step in to help. The trouble is that not all of them are helpful. These groups can make mistakes; some have even committed registration fraud. One study, for instance, found that one-third of the registration applications submitted in 2008 didn't result in a valid registration or address change."

So while requiring people to submit a form in order to register to vote may not in and of itself seem like a big deal, in practice it can create a logistical nightmare and still result in many citizens unable to take part in the process. As the Brennan Center for Justice suggests, by implementing automatic universal voter registration states can eliminate the errors and costs associated with the status quo, while also ensuring that every eligible voter has the opportunity to take part in an Election. While the Maryland GOP and a handful of Redditors may think this concept is a joke or that it would weaken our elections they couldn't be more wrong. Adopting universal automatic voter registration will help bring the nearly 25% of citizens eligible to vote who are not currently registered into the political process, and help to ensure that our Government is truly working for the people by allowing more voters to have a say and hold their elected officials accountable.

States should follow Oregon and California's lead here and do more to ensure that their citizens are able to be heard, and my home state of Kansas is no exception - though they may need to recall Kris Kobach first.