The Case Against Automatic Voter Registration

| by Nicholas Roberts
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The right to vote is a bedrock of America's democratic republic. The history of voting in the U.S. has generally been one of expansion -- however gradual -- of enfranchisement to more citizens over time.

One recent experiment in expanding the franchise has been an electronic system of registering voters when they go to their states' departments of motor vehicles -- a fairly straightforward proposition compared to other hypothetical methods of trying to increase voter registration, such as the creation of a national voting database and ID card.

But this approach still comes with risks and is still in the "experimental" stage. While expanding the number of registered voters and enhancing civic engagement in politics is desirable, critics of this new policy have a right to be concerned that the expansion of automatic voter registration at the state level is not in their best interests.

The two states whose automatic voting systems have had the most dramatic results are Oregon and Vermont, according to The New York Times. In 2014, the monthly average of newly registered voters was roughly 3,955; in 2016, after the new system was put into place, that number has risen to 15,375 new voters a month. In Vermont, election officials say the new system could add 50,000 new voters within four years.

So what is so bad about adding new voters in a fairly simple and constitutional manner?

Namely, it will almost inevitably provide a benefit for the state party currently in control, as Amber Phillips noted in The Washington Post.  This almost invariably tends to be the Democrats in every state that has adopted, except for West Virginia.  

West Virginia is a slightly odd case as Democrats and Republicans are more evenly matched there than in other automatic-voting states such as Oregon, California and Vermont. West Virginia has a Democratic governor and a higher number of registered Democrats but has a Republican legislature, while the other three states have Democratic legislatures, Democratic governors and a highly Democratic voting base.  

Opponents have reasonably made the argument that automatic registration in these states will simply extend the Democrats' advantage over Republicans at the state level, which would be a negative influence on political competition and policy ideas which oppose the ideology of the party in control.

Fraud is also an issue with automatic registration, although the idea of in-person voting fraud on Election Day -- as in voting multiple times for the same candidate at different polling stations -- is largely the stuff of myth.  The more serious fraud largely occurs with absentee/mail voting, which is used in Oregon.  It's much harder to police electoral fraud in people's homes than it is at a central polling station, and the potential consequences of this system when combined with a massively expanded voter base are still unknown.

Ultimately, the expansion of automatic voter registration through the DMV is an experiment whose results are yet to be fully seen. But critics have a compelling reason against the program in most of the states where it has been enacted; West Virginia remains the odd example of a state where the program may make elections more competitive and where its passage was uncontroversial.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post / Photo credit: redjar/Flickr

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