This past Tuesday, Alaska took a massive step forward to ensuring that all of its citizens have access to the ballot box. Over 65% of Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 1, which will implement automatic voter registration throughout the state. Clearly, Alaskan citizens understood the importance of enfranchising all of their community.
Alaskan voters have chosen a method of automatic voter registration that is specifically formulated to the state’s specific resources. The measure will require that the state automatically send information from the Permanent Dividend Fund, which is open to all Alaskans who have lived in the state for the entire year and plan to live in the state indefinitely, to the voter registration rolls. It will both register new voters as well as update existing voter registration information. This will specifically target communities which are likely to experience disproportionately lower voter registration rates, and those for whom the very act of voting is much more logistically difficult simply because of the geography of Alaska. Furthermore, this will ease the burden on voters created by Alaska’s voter registration deadline, which is one of the earliest in the nation. Alaska’s democracy will now be more representative, more responsive, and more reflective of the will of its people.
The ballot measure had support from a politically diverse set of groups and individuals, including “a conservation group and an oil company, unions, and the state’s two Republican senators.” Furthermore, organizations supporting the measure noted that they saw significant support for the measure once voters were educated on how it worked and what it aimed to do While the measure included a cost just short of a million dollars for implementation, the state will see savings down the line as the voter registration system becomes automated and everyone from state employees to advocacy organizations have to spend less time and effort registering voters.
Alaska has historically been willing to consider innovative forms of electoral reform. In 2002, the state voted on a citizen’s initiative which would have implemented ranked choice voting across the state. The ballot measure had the support of most political parties in the state, including, most prominently, the Republican Party of Alaska.) Unfortunately, the measure did not pass.
Alaska is the fifth state to enact automatic voter registration: Vermont, West Virginia, Oregon, and California have already done so. Oregon’s experience has been particularly successful. The number of voters signed up through the automatic registration system that the state implemented was three times the average number of registrations only a few years ago. Oregon tied its automatic voter registration system to the DMV: any eligible citizen who would request or renew their driver’s license, which occurs through the DMV, would have their information automatically added to the voter rolls, unless they explicitly requested to opt-out. It is clear that the movement toward automatic voter registration is growing. This year at least eleven states considered registering eligible voters automatically, among other electoral reform measures that made progress throughout the country.
The United States is one of the only democracies in the world that does not automatically register voters. Instead, that responsibility is shifted to political parties, private organizations, and elected officials, many of which have a vested interest in the outcome of those elections, or even have a history of bias. A look back on past voter registration practices shows that this process has frequently been used not to let citizens participate in our electoral system, but instead to shut them out. Furthermore, ensuring complete and accurate voter rolls is essential to the integrity of the electoral process and the legitimacy of results. Yet, voter rolls are littered with duplicate registrants and errors, nearly a third of eligible American voters are not registered to vote, and voter registration drives result in a surge of registrations close to an election that are difficult to process and that create unanticipated demands on polling places. The current system is simply untenable.
FairVote has been a longtime champion of common sense voter registration reforms including automatic voter registration. In fact, Alaska could go further. Several years ago, when the state cross-referenced its registration data with PFD data, it found that approximately 75,000 divided applicants were not registered to vote. At the same time, an examination of DMV records in Alaska – also information contained in state records – has shown 200,000 eligible but unregistered voters. So the state can, and should in the future, go even further in its efforts to ensure that Alaskan citizens are enfranchised. In the meantime, the passage of Ballot Measure 1 is a positive step forward for all Alaskans who want a representative and responsive government.
Image courtesy: Get Out the Native Vote