When it comes to registering to vote in the United States, the burden has traditionally been on the individual – as regular readers know, if you’re eligible to vote, it’s up to you to take the proactive steps needed to register. A growing number of progressives are eager to flip the model, however, 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. A year ago this month, Oregon became the first state to adopt this policy, and California followed soon after.
Which state would be next? Vermont looked like a strong contender, and a few weeks ago, its state House passed automatic registration by a vote of 137 to 0. But the Associated Press reported on an unexpected state poised to join the club before Vermont.
A push to automatically sign up voters that began with new laws in Oregon and California will soon likely hit a third, notably less liberal state – West Virginia.The proposed change has taken a less-than-conventional route to the governor’s desk.After condemning a Republican voter-ID bill as the “voter suppression act,” Democrats offered an amendment to include automatic registration when people get driver’s licenses or IDs. The Republican-led Legislature accepted it without much resistance.
And that’s the unexpected part. While Republicans tend to be reflexively hostile towards any proposal to make voting easier and voting access wider, in West Virginia, GOP leaders, like Republicans in Vermont’s state House, were more than happy to go along on this.
West Virginia state Senate President Bill Cole (R) actually said automatic registration can be “a great benefit to our citizens and will encourage more people to go to the polls.”
That’s true, but it’s not the position most Republicans generally take.
It’s not yet official, because Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) has not yet decided whether to sign the voter-ID bill that includes the registration provision. But if the governor does put his signature on the bill, the number of states with automatic registration will go from two to three.
As for other areas of possible 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 has picked up 69 co-sponsors, all 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.