Vot­ing made easy

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s push for au­to­matic reg­is­tra­tion makes to­tal sense.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

IT SHOULDN’T be a sur­prise that Hil­lary Clin­ton has tough words for Repub­li­cans. Not all of them will be as de­served as the brickbats she lobbed at them on Thurs­day. “I call on Repub­li­cans at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment with all man­ner of am­bi­tion to stop fear-mon­ger­ing about a phantom epi­demic of elec­tion fraud and start ex­plain­ing why they’re so scared of let­ting cit­i­zens have their say,” she said in call­ing for a sys­tem of uni­ver­sal and au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion in­stead of per­ni­cious new lim­its on the fran­chise.

Politi­cians have waged war over vot­ing rights over the past sev­eral years, with Democrats try­ing to max­i­mize ac­cess to the bal­lot box and Repub­li­cans at­tempt­ing to limit it. Think about that: A ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party has de­voted time and ef­fort to dis­cour­ag­ing el­i­gi­ble vot­ers from ex­er­cis­ing their most fun­da­men­tal demo­cratic right.

GOP lead­ers jus­tify their anti-vot­ing agenda as an an­swer to voter fraud, but voter fraud is an imag­i­nary prob­lem. In fact, Repub­li­cans want fewer peo­ple to vote, es­pe­cially fewer poor and mi­nor­ity peo­ple, be­cause low turnout tends to fa­vor the GOP, and poor and mi­nor­ity peo­ple tend to vote for Democrats. To be sure, Democrats have po­lit­i­cal in­cen­tives to in­crease turnout. But that doesn’t dis­credit the over­rid­ing logic that democ­racy is health­ier when more peo­ple par­tic­i­pate.

The de­bate about whether the gov­ern­ment should make it harder to vote should give way to a dis­cus­sion about how to max­i­mize turnout. Some have sug­gested manda­tory vot­ing, which is both un­re­al­is­tic and raises tough ques­tions con­cern­ing lib­erty and con­science. Ms. Clin­ton’s uni­ver­sal reg­is­tra­tion idea is less rad­i­cal and raises no such ques­tions.

Voter reg­is­tra­tion has op­er­ated as a bar­rier to vot­ing since states be­gan in­sti­tut­ing it in the 19th cen­tury. Though the Vot­ing Rights Act and other mea­sures ended the worst reg­is­tra­tion abuses, most of the coun­try still uses a two-step vot­ing process that re­quires opt-in reg­is­tra­tion, fol­lowed by ac­tual vot­ing. Per­haps the least sur­pris­ing re­search so­cial sci­en­tists have ever con­ducted has found that higher reg­is­tra­tion bur­dens lead to less vot­ing. And there’s no good rea­son for them.

Some states have al­ready in­sti­tuted same-day reg­is­tra­tion, merg­ing reg­is­tra­tion and vot­ing into the same ses­sion. Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity’s Jan Leigh­ley and New York Uni­ver­sity’s Jonathan Na­gler found that this has pro­duced a 6-per­cent­age-point in­crease in turnout. Au­to­matic reg­is­tra­tion should do bet­ter than that. Au­to­mat­i­cally reg­is­tered vot­ers would get elec­tion in­for­ma­tion in the mail, en­cour­ag­ing them to vote, whereas same-day reg­is­tra­tion just helps those who al­ready know when Elec­tion Day is and where their polling places are. Even Repub­li­cans should be at­tracted to the idea of more com­pre­hen­sive, fraud-re­sis­tant voter rolls au­to­mat­i­cally filled and up­dated with in­for­ma­tion col­lected by DMVs, post of­fices, the Cen­sus Bureau or other gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

Au­to­matic reg­is­tra­tion is not a panacea. It wouldn’t re­sult in any­thing like 100 per­cent turnout, es­pe­cially for the coun­try’s fre­quent non­pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. If the sys­tem is left up to states, im­ple­men­ta­tion would vary widely. A fed­er­ally run sys­tem would be bet­ter, though pol­i­cy­mak­ers would have to en­sure that fed­eral of­fi­cials can gather the needed in­for­ma­tion, and it’s hard to imag­ine Congress ap­prov­ing this ap­proach.

But th­ese caveats don’t de­tract from the idea’s mer­its. Ore­gon is al­ready mov­ing for­ward with uni­ver­sal reg­is­tra­tion. Other states should fol­low. If they don’t, Congress should push the pol­icy for­ward.

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