Voting booths await voters in Red Oak, Iowa, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, ahead of the Iowa primary elections.
Nati Harnik/AP

Automatic voter registration expands its reach

As recently as 14 months ago, there wasn’t a state in the nation with automatic voter registration. As of this afternoon, there are now four states that have taken the leap.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has signed into law a bill that automatically registers eligible residents to vote when they apply for a driver’s license. […]
The Democratic governor signed the measure Thursday. It streamlines voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles with a system that identifies eligible Vermont residents and automatically sends their information to the town or city clerk for addition to the checklist, unless they opt out.
In his official press statement, Vermont’s Democratic governor celebrated the reversal of the broader national trend restricting voting rights. “While states across the country are making it harder for voters to get to the polls, Vermont is making it easier by moving forward with commonsense polices that remove unnecessary barriers and increase participation in our democracy,” Shumlin said.
While Vermont isn’t the first state to adopt the policy, the Green Mountain State did it with notable enthusiasm. In the Democratic-led legislature, automatic voter registration passed the state House 125 to 1, while in the state Senate, the vote was 28 to 0.
Vermont’s law will take effect next year, on July 1, 2017.
As for how we got to this point, let’s step back and revisit some of our previous coverage. When it comes to registering to vote in the United States, the burden has traditionally been on the individual – if you’re eligible to vote, it’s up to you to take the proactive steps needed to register.
What a growing number of progressives want is to flip the model, creating a system of automatic voter registration. The idea is exactly what it sounds like: states would automatically register eligible voters, shifting the burden away from the individual. Those who want to withdraw from the system can do so voluntarily without penalty, but otherwise, Americans would be added to the voters rolls automatically.
In March 2015, Oregon became the first state to adopt this policy, and California followed soon after. Earlier this year, West Virginia, surprisingly enough, joined the club.
A related bill passed in New Jersey, but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) – apparently because everything, even making it easier for Americans to be registered to vote, is the basis for a partisan dispute.
As for other areas of potential progress, the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law keeps a running tally of pending proposals at the state level.
At the federal level, meanwhile, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) has taken the lead on making automatic registration a national policy. The bill is now up to 84 co-sponsors, 84 of whom are Democrats, which means the legislation effectively has no chance of even getting a vote in this Republican-led Congress, but the next time Capitol Hill changes hands, don’t be surprised to see movement on this.