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Automatic Registration Is The Latest Chapter In Fight Over Voting Rights

A voter steps out of a voting booth after marking his ballot at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary.
David Goldman
A voter steps out of a voting booth after marking his ballot at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary.

President Obama backed a bill in Illinois last week that would automatically register people to vote when they apply for a driver's license or state ID.

"That will protect the fundamental right of everybody," he said. "Democrats, Republicans, independents, seniors, folks with disabilities, the men and women of our military — it would make sure that it was easier for them to vote and have their vote counted."

But so far, support for automatic voter registration — now being considered in about two dozen states — has pretty much broken down along party lines. Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, generally think it's a great way to expand the electorate, as does Bernie Sanders. But Republicans are far more wary. Some say they're worried it could expose voter rolls to mistakes and fraud.

And there's a philosophical divide, too. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, says it's important that citizens take the initiative when it comes to registering.

"If they just get it, because they're turning a certain age, it kind of takes away from the value that should be associated with the ability to participate," he said. "Because it's a privilege to participate in the electoral process in our state and in our nation, and people need to recognize that."

Unspoken, is the concern over which, if any, group might benefit from the change. Will more Democrats or Republicans be signed up if it's done automatically at the DMV?

And it's not just party breakdown at stake. New York City lawmakers are worried that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's automatic voter registration plan will skew voter rolls in favor of the suburbs and rural areas — where residents are more likely to go to the DMV for a driver's license.

That's why everyone is closely watching what happens in Oregon, the first state to enact automatic voter registration. (California has passed an automatic voter-registration law, but it won't go into effect for at least a year.)

Oregon launched its system Jan. 1, and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, a Democrat, says, "So far, so good." She told other secretaries of state meeting in Washington, D.C., last week that initial results have been promising. More than 4,000 new voters were registered in the first six days — compared to an average 2,000 new registrations each month under the old system.

She said of those automatically signed up, about 7 percent have opted out so far. The state sends everyone a follow-up letter giving them that option, so no one is forced to be registered.

Atkins said there have been two surprises with the new system. First, her office was expecting a lot of calls from confused or angry people wondering why they were automatically registered to vote. She said it hasn't happened. In fact, her office sent home one of the temps hired to man the phones.

The other surprise is that the new system has allowed the state to immediately update 17,000 existing voter registrations to reflect changes of address. Under the old system, it could take months, even years, before the voter rolls were updated when someone moved within the state — a big problem in a state that conducts its elections by mail.

"They may have moved two or three times since the last election but never notified us and we get a lot of undeliverable ballots," says Atkins. "We think that's a loss for the people who should be able to vote and this system is going to help a great deal."

Questions about how automatic voter registration will work are similar to those raised a few years ago about the impact of online voter registration. Some people thought it would favor one party over the other, but so far, that hasn't happened. So while only two states allowed residents to register online in 2008, more than 30 states allow it today. And several more are about to do so.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, thinks there could be bipartisan support for some forms of automatic voter registration as well.

She says using the DMV to automatically register voters in Washington is a "nonstarter" for Republicans because the state doesn't require residents to prove they are legal citizens when they get a regular driver's license. But she notes that those who apply for a commercial driver's license or use the Washington Health Benefit Exchange do have to prove citizenship.

So Wyman and some state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would allow those agencies to automatically sign people up to vote. She says it could register hundreds of thousands of new voters in a secure way.

"I think we're touching on both the Republican issues and the Democratic issues in a balanced way," Wyman said. "And I think we've found kind of the sweet spot between the two, and we'll see how it goes!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.