Last week, Democrats in Congress unveiled a proposal that could result in as many as 50 million more Americans registered to vote, and it's audacious in its simplicity. It would make voter registration automatic for U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older through almost any contact with a government agency.
Apply for a driver's license? Seek public assistance? Request a license for a firearm? Register for classes at the local public university? Become a naturalized citizen? Any of those interactions would result in a potential voter being registered. A person would have to actively decline registration to avoid the process.
Such a proposal ought to be a no-brainer — and draw bipartisan support. It would not only swell the voter rolls dramatically but it would also potentially make them more accurate since the new registrations would be tied to information already provided to local, state and federal agencies, a level of corroboration well beyond what is currently expected.
At least five states have an automatic voter registration process, beginning with Oregon, which adopted a similar law last year and greatly increased its rate of voter registration as a result. Maryland has been moving in this direction as well — most recently with Gov. Larry Hogan's decision in April to sign into law a bill to expand automatic voter registration beyond the Motor Vehicle Administration to a number of other state agencies, including one-stop career centers and the Obamacare health exchange.
Governor Hogan, a Republican, saw the wisdom of making it more convenient to vote, so why won't other GOP governors and GOP-controlled legislatures? Unfortunately, for too long it's been the party's de facto goal to discourage voter participation, advancing such roadblocks as voter photo ID laws on the grounds they discourage voter fraud when there's scant evidence such fraud poses any serious threat — or even exists in most cases.
The decision this week by a federal appeals court to strike down the Texas voter ID law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act should help reinforce the message that discouraging voter participation is not only morally wrong, it's against the law. The ruling leaves an opening to "fix" the law by making it easier for minority voters to get ID cards (perhaps by using voter registration cards as ID), but that doesn't mean such an opening should be pursued. Studies (most notably, one by the Bush administration) have shown over and over again that fraud is a rarity, and the kind a voter ID would protect (someone walking into a polling place claiming to be someone they are not) is the virtual unicorn of election law.
Given how governments at all levels are constantly moving to make their interactions with the public more convenient, from electronic tax returns to online public libraries, it's outrageous to see voter registration made even less convenient than it's been in the past.
What's the argument against automatic voter registration? We haven't heard a good one yet. Certainly not its cost, given the trillions of dollars the federal government spends on everything else but preserving our democracy. Meanwhile, only about two-thirds of Americans who are eligible to vote end up registering, and that helps depress voter turnout. Democracy doesn't work very well if large swaths of the population don't go to the polls. Even with the relatively robust 58 percent turnout (of the voting-eligible population and not just those who registered), 90 million Americans who could have voted sat out the contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
President Obama has already endorsed automatic voter registration, as has former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Governor Hogan's willingness to move in that direction (after some initial hesitancy) has set a commendable example for Republicans who, on the national level, have stuck to their "more voters equal more fraud" story, no matter its own fraudulence. Yet that approach is also one reason why the party struggles to attract support from women and minorities. Mr. Trump ought to join the crusade — and help make election turnout great again.
Automatic voter registration is a bipartisan election reform whose time has come.