Cross-posted on The Hill
Governor Rick Scott warned Floridians earlier this week that Hurricane Matthew “will be devastating,” and told residents that the state is working hard to ensure it’s ready for the storm. One step he declined to take, however, is ensuring that eligible Floridians won’t lose the right to vote this November.
He announced Thursday that it would not be changed because “everybody has had plenty of time to register” already. The governor should reconsider his position, and make voter registration one less thing that his under-siege constituents need to think about during this trying time. And Florida — along with all other states — should implement practices to bring voting and registration into the 21st century.
Modernizing Florida’s voter registration system would go a long way toward preventing this kind of disenfranchising problem in the future. Nearby Georgia, also in Matthew’s path, allows voters to register online and through a mobile app, allowing many displaced residents to easily register no matter where they’ve relocated to weather the storm.
Florida’s own secretary of state has been a vocal opponent of allowing voters to register online, but the legislature recently passed a bill to create it in the state. However, the measure doesn’t take effect until 2017. Scott signed the bill with “hesitation,” despite the fact that it enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the legislature and that 38 other states have online voter registration.
Currently, the only ways to register to vote in Florida are in person or by snail mail. County offices are closed in areas affected by the storm, as are post offices. The United States Postal Service has announced a variety of service suspension and delays for the state.
Voters in Florida would also be better off if their state were one of the 15 that offer same-day registration — meaning voters can register and vote, all in one trip to either their registrar’s office or the polls. This would help citizens protect themselves from the storm without sacrificing their right to vote.
Same-day registration is valuable to voters, as research shows us that interest in registration spikes in the days and weeks before the election. In Florida in 2012, approximately 50,000 peopleregistered to vote in the five days before the deadline.
In North Carolina, where a hurricane warning was issued just earlier today, voters have this opportunity. It has been extremely popular, particularly among African American voters. Though legislators tried to repeal same-day registration in 2013, a recent appellate court ruling has restored it.
And, if Scott wanted to ensure the maximum number of Floridians were ready to vote regardless of what Mother Nature throws their way, he would urge the legislature to take up and pass automatic voter registration, in which the state automatically identifies and registers eligible citizens when they use government services like the DMV, unless they decline to sign up. It takes the onus of registration off of voters and puts it into the hands of government officials.
Automatic registration is already the law in five states and has been wildly successful in growing the rolls. Eligible voters in Florida who had, for example, gone to the DMV to get a driver’s license would not need to fear that Hurricane Matthew would stop them from exercising their most fundamental right in our democracy, because they would already be registered to vote.
Although most voters won’t have to face down a hurricane to participate in November’s election, unfortunately Florida is not the only state to make voting harder rather than easier.
Americans in 14 states will be facing new restrictions at the polls for the first time in a presidential election this year. That number would be higher had courts not stepped in to block some of the worst restrictive laws.
Something like Hurricane Matthew — or 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which disrupted elections along the Eastern seaboard — reminds us that citizens have enough problems to worry about. Wondering whether they’ll be able to cast a ballot that counts shouldn’t be one of them.