ELIZABETH M. HYDE- J.D., 2019, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law; B.A. 2011, Hanover College – Hanover, Indiana.
“When you’re automatically registered to vote, that makes your life easier.” This remark came on the floor of the West Virginia Senate shortly before the Senate voted to pass an automatic voter registration bill. The speaker? State Senator Craig Blair, the Republican Majority Whip. When the bill was signed into law in April 2016, West Virginia became the third state to enact automatic voter registration, following the lead of Oregon and California. West Virginia was also the first conservative-leaning state to pass an automatic voter registration law.
Automatic voter registration is a new and fast-moving area of law, one which is attracting broad bipartisan support. The premise behind automatic voter registration is that rather than merely permitting citizens to register to vote on their own initiative, states will take various steps to automatically register citizens to vote. In the last three years, thirteen states adopted some form of an automatic voter registration law. Oregon became the first state to adopt an automatic voter registration law in March of 2015. When Governor Charlie Baker signed an automatic voter registration measure on August 9, 2018, Massachusetts became the most recent state to pass an automatic voter registration law. Nevada and Michigan may be next, as automatic voter registration measures are on the ballot for November 2018.
Automatic voter registration is partly motivated as a response to low voter turnout. Although 245.5 million American citizens can vote, only 157.6 million Americans—less than 65%—report that they are registered. And in 2016, only 55.7% of the voting age population in the United States went to the voting booth and cast their votes. Although this is technically a majority, the United States’ voter turnout stands in stark contrast to other democracies in developed nations. Of the voting age population in recent elections, 87.2% voted in Belgium, 82.6% voted in Sweden, and 80.3% voted in Denmark. In 2012, out of 172 countries, the United States ranked 138th for voter turnout.
Though many factors affect turnout, such as the method of voting and voting dates and times, registration is one key issue, as it is a prerequisite to voting in the United States. And voter registration has been a hotly contested issue in recent memory. Much civil rights activism during the 1960s was concerned with registering black voters, who were threatened with eviction, termination from employment, and even death when they tried to register to vote in some states. [Read entire Note here].