One More State Knocks Down a Barrier to Voting

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Automatic voter registration is now on the books in yet another state, with Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts signing a bill into law

This is one that’s gone from nothing to a major Democratic Party priority in very little time. The first state to enact such a law was Oregon in 2015. Massachusetts is the 14th, not counting the District of Columbia. The basic idea is that voter registration switches from the traditional opt-in — putting the burden on the voter — to opt-out, meaning that voters are not forced to register but have to make an active decision to avoid doing so. The states that have adopted it are mostly Democratic ones, with the exceptions of West Virginia, Georgia and Alaska. We could also count North Dakota, which doesn’t have any voter registration at all.

It’s about time. Most democracies simply do not have voter registration as a barrier to voting — it’s automatic, and voters can just assume they are on the rolls. The U.S. version isn’t that simple, as it generally depends on some interaction with the government. But once voter registration is triggered, the voter doesn’t have to do anything at all. 

What’s also important here is that it represents a real shift in the voting wars. In the decade or so leading up to 2015, it was mostly Republicans on the offensive. They pushed to restrict or eliminate the protections enabled by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its various renewals; passed voter identification laws; and in some areas rolled back early voting. Now Democrats have a counter-agenda, and they’re rushing to enact the least controversial parts of it, at least where they have the votes. 

My guess is that eliminating voter registration as a significant obstacle will be high on the Democratic agenda in 2019 and going forward. Also high on their agenda: restoring voter rights for ex-felons. 

What would be nice is if Democrats would also move to enact another reform to make voting easier: consolidated elections. In too many jurisdictions, municipal elections and other local races show up haphazardly on the calendar, rather than sharing November dates with state and federal elections. Local politicians, many of them Democrats, have done that in order to keep turnout very low and thereby protect themselves in office. If Democrats are serious about enabling democratic participation — and they should be — they should change that, even if it takes state governments to do so. 

There’s no other single reform that could do more to increase overall voter turnout. Changes in registration or voter identification schemes probably affect who votes, but only on the margins. Many local elections have truly dismal turnout, sometimes well below 10 percent. Put those same elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November — in other words, on the same ballot as the offices that, rightly or wrongly, get the bulk of the publicity — and turnout will increase dramatically. 

So, yes, it’s definitely nice to see one significant barrier to voting get knocked down. Good job, Massachusetts! Now let’s see more of these barriers fall.

1. Anand Menon at the Monkey Cage on big changes in British politics.

2. Dan Drezner on Jean-Luc Picard. Good points, but I see no reason to have to decide between Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway. Each has strengths! 

3. Aaron Blake at the Fix on President Donald Trump and perjury traps.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Therese Raphael on a WTO-style Brexit

6. And Daniel Dale continues counting Trump’s false statements. Yes, there have been even more lately. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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