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Now Is the Time to Think Big on Voting

A decade ago, automatic voter registration seemed ambitious, and today it’s reality. What might be the next transformative reform?

  • Zachary Roth
March 1, 2019

Back in 2009, when the Brennan Center released a groundbreaking report [PDF] on automatic voter registration (AVR), the idea generated an outpouring of support from public officials and op-ed boards. But some cautioned that it could take time.

“Figuring out the specifics is tricky and will need careful study,” the Washington Post wrote.

Six years later, Oregon became the first state to pass AVR — in which eligible voters are automatically registered whenever they have contact with various government agencies, unless they opt out. Today, over one third of Americans live in one of the 15 states plus Washington D.C. that have approved AVR, with more states likely to join them this year.

It’s a similar story on re-enfranchising people with past convictions. The Brennan Center and plenty of others have fought for rights restoration for many years. But few people a decade ago would have predicted that today, even Republican officials would be lining up to loosen their states’ voting bans amid overwhelming popular support for doing so.

The point is, it doesn’t take long for an idea to go from pie in the sky to reality. And that’s truer than ever today with voting. In the Trump era, alarm and disgust over voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering have kicked off a vibrant conversation about the health of our democracy. That conversation is offering momentum to the current wave of reforms, but it’s also sparking interest in some ideas that right now might sound aspirational — just as today’s reforms did to many in 2006 — but that a decade or so from now might be at the forefront of the pro-democracy agenda. And, beyond voting, progressives are increasingly uniting around ambitious policy proposals, like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal, that ignore current political constraints — and do so as a feature, not a bug.

So even though the current fights over voting policies are far from over, if we want to keep making our democracy more fair and inclusive, we should be doing some “blue-skying” of our own. Many of these ideas may never get signed into law. But if they expand the discussion so that nationwide AVR, say, becomes the reasonable compromise position, they’ll have served a valuable purpose.

Here are some potential candidates for the next tide of transformative reforms:

Ranked-Choice Voting. Maine used this system for its federal races last November, and several cities also use it. There’s even legislation in Congress to take it national. Voters rank their choices in order of preference, and if no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, with their second-choice votes distributed to the other candidates. This process continues until one candidate has a majority. The goal is to end the spoiler effect (think Ralph Nader in 2000), to open up the two-party system, and to encourage candidates to appeal to a wider swath of voters. Learn more here.

Or how about the National Popular Vote (NPV), which aims to get around the Electoral College, the absurd anachronism that in two of the last five elections has handed the White House to the candidate rejected by voters? The NPV campaign urges states to pass legislation that would give their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. It only goes into effect once states that total 270 electoral votes have signed on — at which point, it would ensure that the popular vote winner becomes president. Colorado just passed legislation to become the 12th state plus Washington, D.C. to get on board, making 181 total electoral votes. (Maine also has introduced a bill to join, prompting its former governor, Paul LePage, to say the plan would silence “white people” — “it’s only going to be the minorities that would elect.”) Learn more here.

Want to keep expanding access to the ballot? There’s a growing push to enfranchise 16– and 17-year-olds, who lately have been at the forefront of the activism on issues that deeply affect them, like climate change, gun violence, and police brutality. It’s backed by social science research suggesting that older teens are mature enough to vote responsibly, and by evidence that it leads to increased political engagement down the line. Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Austria, and Scotland all let 16– and 17-year-olds vote, as do the Maryland cities of Takoma Park and Hyattsville, for local elections only. Learn more here.

There are even efforts to let non-citizens vote in local elections. Again, Takoma Park and Hyattsville are the pioneers, and San Francisco allowed it in school board elections for the first time last year. In fact, in many states, non-citizens were enfranchised for all elections until the 1920s, when an earlier wave of nativist hysteria led them to end the practice. Stacey Abrams, among the Democratic Party’s most prominent spokespeople on voting issues, has said she “wouldn’t oppose” letting non-citizens vote in local elections. Learn more here.

But instead of tinkering around the edges, why not just go all the way? Yup, compulsory voting. In recent years, the evidence has become irrefutable that voters and non-voters look very different (voters are whiter, older, and richer, among other things), meaning the electorate doesn’t effectively represent Americans. That’s led to renewed interest in requiring people to carry out their civic duty and vote. Eleven democracies, including Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Belgium, mandate voting. In Australia, those who don’t vote can be subject to a small fine, and turnout is roughly 90 percent, compared to 58 percent in our last presidential election. (It helps that the election is on a Saturday, and that many Aussies attend community barbecues to celebrate, where they eat “democracy sausages.”) President Barack Obama mused about it in 2015, calling the idea potentially “transformative.” Learn more here.

To be absolutely clear: Brennan Center isn’t currently supporting any of these proposals. Heck, I’m not even sure I support all of them! If there are other, better voting ideas that deserve a hearing, I’m all ears.

But I am certain about this: We are in the midst of an all-out battle over whether we’re going to expand democracy or contract it — as attested by the first bill introduced in this year’s Congress, and the frenzied opposition to it from some quarters. In that dynamic environment, the political ground can shift much more quickly than we’re used to — and it’s much better to be playing offense than defense.

After all, who knows? By 2030, some of these ideas may look like little more than common sense.

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

(Image: Wakila/Getty/BCJ)