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Automatic voter registration takes another big step forward

An 'I voted' sticker is handed out to a voter during the Maryland presidential primary election at Skyline Elementary School in Suitland, Md., April 26, 2016. (Photo by Shawn Thew/EPA)
An 'I voted' sticker is handed out to a voter during the Maryland presidential primary election at Skyline Elementary School in Suitland, Md., April 26, 2016.

Automatic voter registration (AVR) may now seem like common sense, but as recently three years ago, it did not exist in any of the nation's states. As Mother Jones' Ari Berman reported late last week, however, the policy keeps expanding its reach.

Maryland became the 12th state to enact automatic voter registration on Thursday after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan declined to veto a bill that had passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Maryland has half a million unregistered voters, according to a 2017 report by the department of legislative services. [...]Under the bill, eligible voters will automatically be registered when they obtain or renew a driver's license at the Department of Motor Vehicles or interact with other agencies such as the state's health insurance exchange and local departments of social services, unless they opt out. The new law takes effect in July 2019 and could register 400,000 new voters, according to a report by Demos.

For those keeping score, Maryland now joins Oregon, California, Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia in adopting AVR. (Technically, that's 11 states plus D.C.)

They may soon have some company. New Jersey, where Democrats now control the levers of power, is poised to approve automatic voter registration fairly soon, and in Nevada, AVR will be on the statewide ballot this fall, and most observers expect it to pass.

As we discussed a month ago, when Democrats in Washington approved sweeping progressive election reforms, including AVR, 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' editorial in the new issue of 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.