Automatic Voter Registration Will Make America a Real Democracy

1015_Voter Registration California
A couple poses with a cardboard cutout of U.S. President Barack Obama during a voter registration drive for National Voter Registration Day in Los Angeles on September 22. Automatic voter registration is critical to the democratic process in the U.S., the author writes. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Last weekend, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a historic bill making California the second state in the country to automatically register voters. The new legislation will give 6.6 million eligible but unregistered voters an opportunity to exercise their citizenship right.

The bill, which registers voters who show up at the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a driver's license or an identification card, follows record low turnout in last year's midterm elections, for which only 42 percent of those eligible to vote in California went to the polls. California's low turnout is a snapshot of what's happening across the country.

Beset with long lines on Election Day, strict voter ID laws and teetering piles of paper records full of errors, the country's voter registration system is fundamentally broken—leaving nearly a third of all eligible Americans unregistered to vote. By comparison, 93 percent of eligible voters are on the rolls in our neighboring country of Canada.

In the United States, we take pride in our democracy and freedom, and voting should serve as the cornerstone of that proud democracy. Automatic voter registration is critical to that democratic process.

Imagine if all 50 states implemented automatic voter registration. The Center for Popular Democracy did, crunched the numbers and found that a voter registration system collecting data from not just the DMV but also revenue agencies, the Postal Service and others could result in the registration of 56 million more voters. This is assuming that automatic voter registration systems would capture approximately 90 percent of the total electorate.

Right now, our state of democracy is far from what it should be. In the 2012 presidential election, a mere 133 million out of 215 million Americans eligible to vote exercised their right to do so. The U.S. ranks 120 out of 162 countries in electoral participation.

Our current outmoded paper-based voter registration system makes the process of registering to vote unnecessarily cumbersome, disproportionately disenfranchising low-income communities, blacks, Latinos and young people.

Roughly 62 million eligible voters are currently unregistered, either because they never registered or their registration information is incorrect. In a 2008 Current Population Survey, blacks and Latinos cited "difficulties with the registration process" as their reason for not registering to vote, while whites disproportionately reported not registering because they were "not interested in elections or politics."

Automatic voter registration could change this scenario, and the tide is right now turning toward building a stronger democracy. Political leaders and grassroots movements across the nation are succeeding in pushing universal voter registration forward.

A strong democracy with easy access to voter registration would give power to communities frequently marginalized by the system. Universal automatic voter registration would provide power to push for causes such as affordable high-quality child care, better wages, job security and quality public education.

A truly democratic America doesn't make its citizens jump through hoops to gain access to a basic entitlement: the right to vote. It's time for automatic voter registration.

Katrina Gamble is director of civic engagement and politics at the Center for Popular Democracy.