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Automatic voter registration expands its reach to another state

As recently as three years ago. automatic voter registration did not exist in any state. As of yesterday, it's now law in 14 states.
A woman places her vote into the ballot box on March 5, 2016 in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo by Austin Anthony/Daily News/AP)
A woman places her vote into the ballot box on March 5, 2016 in Bowling Green, Ky.

A month ago, Massachusetts' state Senate approved an automatic-voter-registration bill unanimously. Apparently, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) got the message. The Boston Globe  reported:

Hundreds of thousands of new voters could join the state's rolls in the coming years after Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation that adopts automatic voter registration — one in a flurry of bills that became law Thursday with a few flicks of the Republican's pen. [...]Under the new law, eligible residents who interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles or the MassHealth program will have to opt out if they don't want to join the voter rolls, rather than opt in. The law also allows the secretary of state to reach agreements with state agencies to automatically register voters if they meet certain criteria, potentially further expanding the net the state can cast to reach eligible residents.

While it's obviously too late for the measure to take effect ahead of this year's elections, state officials said the new system will be in place before the 2020 cycle.

The developments make Massachusetts the nation's 14th state to adopt automatic voter registration, joining (in alphabetical order) Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. The District of Columbia has also approved AVR.

Not bad for a policy that didn't exist in any state as recently as three years ago.

What's more, there's no reason to think the progress will soon stop. Automatic voter registration will be on the statewide ballot in November in Nevada, and most observers expect it to pass. Voting-rights advocates are also trying to get AVR onto the ballot in Michigan.

Revisiting our previous coverage, I’ve long believed this is a policy that’s tough to argue against. 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.

Automatic voter registration, which already exists in many of the world’s democracies, flips that model.

The idea is exactly what it sounds like: under the policy, states 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 simply be added to the voters rolls as a matter of course.

This tends to be a Democratic priority, though I see it more as an example of good governance than a partisan tactic. After all, when Donald Trump won two years ago, voter registration wasn’t the principal problem for Dems; the failure of already registered voters to show up was a far more consequential issue. (For more along these lines, note Paul Glastris’ recent editorial in the Washington Monthly.)

That said, automatic voter registration, regardless of its electoral impact, looks like an idea whose time has come.

Postscript: Let’s not forget that Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) has taken the lead on sponsoring a national AVR bill at the federal level, and his proposal has 108 co-sponsors. At this point, however, literally all 108 are Democrats, and in a House led by a far-right Republican majority, the bill has no realistic chance of getting a vote, at least not in this Congress.