(Maybe ALEC, the aggressive and wildly successful, conservative organization that provides model legislation for its ideological comrades in state legislatures, will make automatic voting spring up all over the U.S. Just kidding, of course).
By almost any gauge, the state of Oregon took a radical step toward making it possible for every citizen over the age of eighteen to vote. The State passed a law which automatically registers everyone who has official contact with its motor vehicle department (DMV). The Oregon law allows an automatically registered voter to opt out. Of course, non-citizens won’t be registered.
You may recall the 1993 federal measure, dubbed “Motor-Voter,” requiring state DMVs to provide opportunities for voter registration. Motor-Voter is an ancestor of the Oregon law. In retrospect, that law, maybe radical for it’s time, was toothless and passive by comparison. Oregon’s measure can rightly be called “Motor -Voter” on steroids.
A few say Oregon wimped out by not making voting compulsory, like in Australia. Deep skepticism about the value of every citizen voting is in America’s DNA, starting with our Constitution. If every state adopted the Oregon method, another 50 million people would be (automatically) eligible to vote. That would elate some, and horrify others.
As mentioned earlier, Oregon didn’t go as far as Australia, and about ten other democracies in the world that legally require citizens to vote. Does compulsory voting sound excessive? Perhaps. But In Australia you wouldn’t have a situation, like in the 2014 U.S. mid term elections, where about 18 to 25 percent of the adult citizenry (depending how you calculate it), gave Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and two additional governorships.
Rarely have any of our President’s, D’s or R’s, been elected by more than 30 to 35 percent of voting eligible citizens. Even if a candidate garners 60% of the vote, with barely 60% turnout, just 35% of the electorate has made the decision — and that’s in a “landslide” and in a high turnout year.
Don’t look for legislatures and governors in any fiery red states, or for that matter, Wisconsin or Ohio, to jump on the Oregon band wagon. But, in theory, people in some states can push for something like the new Oregon automatic registration law through ballot measures.
Can that work? Perhaps, in a few places, and with a lot of effort and money. But reformists will encounter opposition lawyers who say the U.S. Constitution empowers only state “legislative bodies” to change electoral laws; that “the people” acting through initiatives or referenda are not legislative bodies, and thus can’t change electoral systems on their own.
That’s precisely the argument in a case out of Arizona, recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. It involves a voter approved ballot measure which empowered an “independent commission,” rather than sitting legislators, to draw state legislative and congressional district boundary lines. It’s a highly worthy effort to prevent politicians from perpetuating their power. (I expect the Supreme Court to over turn it).
The outcome of that case may have enormous implications for representative government in the U.S., not only for re-districting. It can also determine whether automatic voter registration has any chance at all to spread beyond the Pacific Northwest in the foreseeable future.
U.S. voter participation has always been tepid. For most of the nation’s history, the Constitution and state laws denied the vote to women, blacks, and citizens under 21. Even white males who didn’t own property couldn’t legally vote in all U.S. states till 1856. Even as legal barriers to voting were stripped away by amendments to the U.S and state Constitutions, and by Acts of Congress, voter participation rates in the U.S. have lagged behind, and still trail, those in nearly all other advanced (genuinely) democratic polities.
In the halcyon, “Leave it to Beaver,” days of the 1950s and early 60s, most political scientists thought low voter turnout in the U.S. was a good thing — that it signified Americans’ satisfaction with their economic conditions, government, and direction of the country. All was well; there were no rascals to throw out. There may have been some (minimal and perfunctory) truth to that in the 1950s.