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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)