Jeb Bush is laughing off the news that he listed himself as Hispanic on a 2009 voter registration form.
“Don’t think I’ve fooled anyone,” the all-but-announced 2016 presidential hopeful—and descendant of Plymouth Rock settlers—tweeted Monday.
This looks to have been a harmless mistake by the former Florida governor. But Bush’s mix-up nonetheless underscores a crucial problem with our election system—one that’s getting increasing attention amid fights over voting access and declining turnout: By putting ordinary people in charge of registering themselves to vote, we’re guaranteeing frequent errors—some much more consequential than Bush’s—while reducing the number of people who end up voting.
That’s why there’s a growing movement to shift the burden of registration away from would-be voters and onto election administrators. Last month, Oregon passed a law that uses DMV records to automatically register people to vote when they turn 18. Anyone who doesn’t want to register can opt out, but those who take no action are registered. California’s secretary of state recently proposed legislation modeled on Oregon’s law.
The concept makes sense on a number of levels, advocates say. Bush could make light of his mistake, but some people who make errors in the registration process don’t have that luxury. In 2013, an Iowa woman, Kelli Griffin, was charged with a felony and faced jail time because she mistakenly registered and voted despite a felony conviction. (Griffin was advised that she could vote upon completing probation, only for the rules to be changed. She was acquitted by a jury last year, after spending around $10,000 on legal fees.)
Griffin is far from alone. Many of the allegations of voter fraud cited by Republicans to justify restrictive voting rules turn out to be similar cases: ex-felons or non-citizens who mistakenly believe they’re allowed to vote, then face aggressive and burdensome investigations.
And if you genuinely think, despite the evidence, that illegal voting is a significant threat to elections, then putting the government – not individuals – in charge of the registration process should make it much harder for ineligible voters to slip through.
Those aren’t the only reasons it might make sense to take registration out of the hands of individuals. Having to register to vote is a practical barrier for some people, especially those who are poor and marginalized. So shifting that burden to the state leads to more people voting. That’s more urgent than ever after a midterm election that saw just 36% of eligible Americans turn out—the lowest figure since World War II.
“We’re definitely supportive of the overall goal of having government take more responsibility for getting eligible people onto the rolls, rather than leaving the burden solely on each individual to figure out all the ins and outs and cut through the red tape and make it happen,” said Brenda Wright, the vice president of legal strategies at Demos, which works to increase political participation.
Wright called the Oregon bill a “good first step,” but said it leaves out eligible voters who don’t interact with the DMV. A more comprehensive approach, she said, would also register people who come into contact with other government offices, like those that provide welfare and other social services.
North Dakota goes further still—it has no registration system at all. That might not work in bigger and less rural states, but it’s a reminder that voter registration wasn’t always seen as necessary. As Alexander Keyssar writes in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000), it was instituted by many states in the later 19th century as a way to limit voting by newly arrived immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.
Even today, those looking to suppress minority voting continue to use the registration system. In recent years, Texas Republicans have instituted strict new rules governing the process, making it far harder to bring the roughly 2 million unregistered Texas Hispanics into the system.