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Election Day Registration Could Cut Through Many of the Arguments in the Voting Wars

It’s a key tool for making voting easier

October 16, 2018

It is now too late to register to vote in a major­ity of states, includ­ing Texas, Flor­ida, and New York. That means if you’re suddenly roused by Beto O’Rourke’s Senate candid­acy in Texas, the ripsnort­ing Flor­ida gubernat­orial race, or the five Repub­lican-held House seats in play in New York, congrat­u­la­tions — you’ve already been disen­fran­chised. 

Reas­on­able regis­tra­tion dead­lines can help elec­tion offi­cials main­tain accur­ate rolls. But they also have the effect of cutting off would-be voters who tune in too late or who move close to an elec­tion. 

There’s an easy solu­tion. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia currently allow Elec­tion Day voter regis­tra­tion with proper iden­ti­fic­a­tion. (Mary­land would become the 17th if voters approve a consti­tu­tional amend­ment in Novem­ber). It is a grow­ing, yet under-hyped, voting-rights move­ment that began in the 1970s with three reform-minded states: Minnesota, Wiscon­sin, and Maine. 

At the core of today’s voting wars over ID require­ments, early ballot­ing, the rights of former felons, and related matters is a cynical calcu­la­tion by the Repub­lic­ans that they derive a polit­ical advant­age from arti­fi­cially restrict­ing the fran­chise. Anyone who doubts this truism should take a few minutes to study the sorry history of Donald Trump’s short-lived commis­sion on voter fraud and its combat­ive GOP vice chair­man, Kris Kobach, the secret­ary of state of Kansas.

What is needed at this troubled junc­ture is some way for both sides to reaf­firm the tradi­tional bipar­tisan consensus that, in a demo­cracy, voting is a good thing. One way is back­ing auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, which puts citizens on the rolls when they visit the depart­ment of motor vehicles or other state agen­cies. The other is stress­ing Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion as both a prac­tical and symbolic step toward boost­ing voter turnout.

In 2016, accord­ing to a study by the good-govern­ment group Nonprofit VOTE, turnout was 7 percent higher in the 14 states that had same-day regis­tra­tion than in the 36 states that did not permit it. Part of this differ­ence may be due to tradi­tion and demo­graph­ics since New England and the Upper Midw­est are much more likely to allow Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion. An addi­tional factor may be that six of these same-day states were also hotly contested battle­grounds in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race with would-be voters exposed to an avalanche of TV ads and candid­ate visits. 

It’s import­ant to note that same-day regis­tra­tion does not confer an advant­age for either party. In 2016, Trump carried as many states with Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion (seven — stretch­ing from North Caro­lina to Idaho) as Hillary Clin­ton. (The elect­oral vote break­down was Clin­ton 54, Trump 45. But remove the Demo­cratic strong­hold of Illinois, and the count becomes Clin­ton 34, Trump, 45.) 

This lack of obvi­ous partisan advant­age is under­stand­able. The candid­ates who bene­fit from nonvoters decid­ing to register and vote at the last minute are those who arouse a passion­ate response. And, given the ebb and flow of polit­ics, these may have been Barack Obama dream­ers in 2008 and conser­vat­ive Tea Party milit­ants in 2010. The point is that there is no predict­able polit­ical direc­tion to enthu­si­asm.

Same-day regis­tra­tion also cuts through many of the argu­ments that conser­vat­ives have bran­dished through­out the voting wars. Reas­on­able voter ID would be required since elec­tion offi­cials don’t have enough time to verify eligib­il­ity. In similar fash­ion, anyone wrongly purged from the voting rolls can reregister on Elec­tion Day like a new voter. 

Of course, same-day regis­tra­tion is not a panacea for Amer­ica’s low turnout rate, espe­cially in midterm elec­tions. But enact­ing it across the nation would be a welcome symbol that Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans can come together to make voting easier and more appeal­ing. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Image: Mark Freso/Getty)