Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s call for an automatic national voter registration system has attracted predictable criticism ranging from doubts about the constitutionality of a federal standard to charges it’s a partisan ploy to help the Democrats.
To be fair, at a time Republicans have initiated most efforts to restrict the electorate and Democrats are pushing most measures to expand it, it’s clear which party both think a larger electorate would help. Surveys of nonvoters in the past two elections agree Democrats would benefit, though some analysts say one can’t be sure and state-by-state variations are likely.
But that’s not really the issue.
The world’s leading democracy ought to make voting as easy as possible so that as many Americans as possible choose our leaders. Though some states have reformed their voting systems, most have not; if they don’t, the federal government should. But given the degree of partisanship and gridlock in Washington, it will be very difficult, even if the election puts Clinton in position to try.
The Constitution divides authority over elections between the federal and state governments, requiring a standard for suffrage equivalent to that for “the most numerous branch of the state legislature.” It says legislatures shall set “the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives,” but adds that Congress “may make or alter such regulations.”
In debating the Constitution, James Madison said “the right of suffrage … ought not to be left to be regulated by the Legislature,” warning that “a gradual abridgment of this right has been the mode in which aristocracies have been built on the ruins of popular forms.”
Some critics say the constitutional provisions preclude Clinton’s proposal. But the trend throughout American history has been to expand suffrage: enabling non-owners of property to vote, eliminating barriers with Constitutional amendments barring restrictions because of race (15th Amendment), [gender] (19th Amendment) or age (26th Amendment), and Supreme Court decisions and legislation ending everything from gerrymandering to poll taxes.
But in recent years, many states have passed laws requiring strict voter identification and limiting things like early voting that have the practical impact of making registration and voting more difficult for minorities, the elderly, the poor and students in the name of combating nonexistent voter fraud.
The Bush administration’s Justice Department couldn’t find more than a few cases. Neither could Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s attorney general’s office. And Richard Posner, the Republican appellate judge who wrote the key decision backing voter ID laws, has admitted he was wrong.
Since 2010, 21 states — most with GOP governors and legislatures — have passed laws making it harder to vote, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which tracks legislative and judicial actions (and advocates universal registration).
Though most Republicans deny partisan intent, a few have acknowledged it. Before a court invalidated Pennsylvania’s voter ID law in 2012, state Rep. Mike Turzai said it “is gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Former GOP Chairman Jim Greer said Florida reduced early voting days in 2011 “because early voting is not good for us.”
Earlier this year, Oregon adopted automatic registration for everyone with a driver’s license. Other states have taken more modest steps. Still, millions of Americans don’t vote for reasons ranging from disinterest to failure to meet legal requirements for documentation.
Clinton’s proposal raises a philosophic issue: Should prospective voters take the initiative or should the government provide permanent registration as a matter of right. A 2009 Brennan Center study reported the United States was among four out of 16 democratic countries to put the burden solely on the voter.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Georgia’s venerable civil rights hero, Democratic Rep. John Lewis, have proposed requiring the 23 states without an online registration system to establish one.
And congressional Democrats this week proposed a revised version of their bill to restore the Justice Department’s authority and update standards for preclearance of voting law changes in states with histories of discrimination, something in which the Republican-controlled Congress has so far shown little interest.
Perhaps the current reaction against vestiges of racial discrimination will prompt greater interest in combating measures that perpetuate bias by curbing voting. Still, it will be an uphill fight as long as one party thinks such restrictions help its electoral success.