Today, September 27, marks National Voter Registration Day. For many, this day symbolizes American democracy and an invitation to all citizens to participate in the government. What many might not know is that the United States is one of the only democracies in the world to not automatically register voters, instead shifting the responsibility to political parties, organizations, and elected officials with a history of bias. Looking back on past voter registration practices shows that this process has been frequently used not to let citizens into our electoral system but instead to shut them out.
Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, highlighted the troubled history of voter registration on Twitter:
1\ It's #NationalVoterRegistrationDay. I despise this day because voter reg among the most effective vote suppression tools in history— Michael McDonald (@ElectProject) September 27, 2016
An obvious example of this is the Jim Crow South, where clerks would deliberately close precinct doors on black citizens. However, McDonald points out that abuse of the voter registration process spread all throughout the United States. In the 1850s, Northeastern states limited voter registration to city populations, fearing the partisan consequences of letting rural citizens vote (Wisconsin continued this practice until the early 2000’s.) Even today, states have enacted voter ID laws that restrict the number of Americans who can vote.
Throughout American history, voter registration has not been a requirement for participating in our democracy. McDonald notes that before the 1850s, the government kept track of who was eligible to vote. North Dakota only requires an ID to vote in lieu of registration. If this practice worked in the past (and is working in North Dakota), it’s possible to change to a fairer system.
FairVote has been a longtime champion of common sense voter registration reforms like universal voter registration and automatic voter registration. These reforms are already a success, as Vermont, West Virginia, Oregon and California have all enacted automatic voter registration. Oregon recently took automatic voter registration one step further, passing a breakthrough law to automatically register eligible citizens in the driver’s license database (and who do not ask to remain unregistered.) This measure has proved effective for the state, which saw an increase in the voter rolls of greater than 2.5 percent in the first four months of the law’s enactment. Similar legislation to that of Oregon is now pending in 17 states plus the District of Columbia.
Since nearly one-third of eligible American voters aren’t registered, universal voter registration would fuel greater participation in our electoral process while guaranteeing admission to all eligible citizens. Unlike National Voter Registration Day, this reform would truly be a cause for celebration.