Exactly nine years to the day after launching his bid for the White House, President Obama returned to Springfield, Ill., yesterday – the site of his campaign kickoff – to deliver a speech in the House Chamber of the Illinois State Capitol. And while the remarks touched on a variety of issues, mainly focused on the need for a better kind of politics, Obama’s call to “reduce … barriers to voting” also stood out for me.
“[Bills are pending in the state legislature] that would automatically register every eligible citizen to vote when they apply for a driver’s license. That will protect the fundamental right of everybody. 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.“And as one of your constituents, I think you should pass that legislation right away. I think the Governor should sign it without delay. Let’s make the Land of Lincoln a leader in voter participation. That’s something we should be proud to do. Let’s set the pace – encourage other states across the country to follow our lead, making automatic voter registration the new norm across America.”
It’s good to see this get some attention, because automatic voter registration seems like one of those obvious ideas that should be adopted without controversy.
As we’ve discussed, 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. Automatic registration flips the model. 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.
About a year ago, Oregon became the first state to adopt this policy, and California followed soon after.
So, for voting-rights advocates, that’s two down, 48 to go. Which state is next?
As it turns out, the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law keeps a running tally of pending proposals at the state level, and as of last week, 14 states are at least looking at the possibility this year. Most of those states have Republican governors, which makes progress less likely, but it matters that the issue is catching on and gaining attention from policymakers.
At the federal level, meanwhile, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I..) has taken the lead on making automatic registration a national policy. The bill has picked up 69 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats, which means the legislation effectively has no chance of even getting a vote, but the next time Congress changes hands, don’t be surprised to see movement on this.