If you’re like most registered American voters, you probably mailed a paper form to your local election office to make sure you were all set.
Maybe that was five years ago because you’ve been at the same address for a while. Or it maybe it was last week if you only learned of your state’s deadline a little while ago.
But never mind when it happened, because it shouldn’t have to be this way.
Voter registration should be automatic.
“The question you have to ask,” says Whitney Quesenbery, co-director of the Center for Civic Engagement, “is why do we make citizens jump through hoops to become voters?”
While several US states have passed legislation to make voter registration automatic, only Oregon has put laws into place. Even some countries have taken the wisdom of automatic registration to heart, including Sweden and France, whose turnout rates in their most recent election were 82.6% and 71.2% respectively.
America’s? Just 53.6%.
In Quesenbery’s view, states already have access to so much of citizens’ identifying information that local governments should be able to make registration the default.
That’s how it works in Sweden. The Swedish Tax Administration is in charge of updating people’s names, addresses, and marital statuses, and municipalities supply the details. Before an election, officials comb through that database and send proofs of registration to people in each district letting them know where and when to vote.
Oregon has a similar set-up, which Quesenbery says could set a good example for the rest of the 28 states currently considering automatic voter registration policies.
In Oregon, as long as you’ve had a “qualifying interaction,” which the state defines as one that supplies your basic identification info, such as a trip to the DMV, you’re registered.
A few weeks after that interaction, you get a postcard that reminds you of the registration. You have three choices at that point. You can either do nothing and stay registered; you can specify which party you belong to; or you can ask to opt out for any reason.
It’s simple and uses existing technology that every state government has access to, Quesenbery says. The challenge in getting automatic registration everywhere is that it also requires a culture shift.
“That takes some time,” she says. “And as much as I want to see it all happen tomorrow, I think there’s some value to each state being able to work through the issues and move there on their own.”
The fact more than half the states already are embracing something that’s brand-new reveals how good of an idea it is, Quesenbery adds.
“I think it’s going to move very fast,” she says, “because as a government leader how do you stand up and say, ‘I want to do something that makes it harder for people to register to vote’?”
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