Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) signed an automatic voter registration bill into law Wednesday, making the state the ninth in the nation to register eligible voters when they interact with the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Democratic Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea noted in a statement that such laws help update voter rolls and address concerns of election security. “Having clean voter lists is critical to preserving the integrity of our elections, which is why I made enacting Automatic Voter Registration a priority,” she said. “Automatic Voter Registration will help reduce the bloat in our voter rolls resulting from unintentional, duplicate voter registrations and help increase voter participation.”
As the nonpartisan law and policy organization Brennan Center for Justice explained in an analysis on automatic voter registration policy, the voting reform registers eligible U.S. citizens to vote upon interaction with government agencies unless they decline, and those agencies then send voter registration information to election officials. “These two changes create a seamless process that is more convenient and less error-prone for both voters and government officials,” the analysis explained.
Despite some Republicans’ apparent fears about the accuracy of voter rolls, automatic voter registration hasn’t been pushed by the president and his cohort as a key solution.
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A 2015 report from the Brennan Center further details how automatic voter registration can help ensure more accurate voter rolls, noting that it makes systems “easier to maintain and, critically, helps preserve the integrity of the ballot.”
“This happens for two reasons,” the report says. “First, paperless systems leave less room for human error from bad handwriting, mishandling paper forms, or manual data entry. Second, because voters are sending more real-time information to the registration system, outdated or duplicate records can be eliminated.”
Though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, some fear, according to the report, that voter registrations for the deceased and duplicate registration “could help unscrupulous people manipulate our elections.” However, automatic voter registration could address this fear since “a modern system effectively counters the threat” that could represent.
“Duplications and deceased registrants can be dramatically reduced if public officials are constantly updating the rolls based on automatically transmitted information,” the report continues. “In this respect, modernizing reforms can make our elections more secure and boost voters’ confidence in our system.”
Republicans across the country, including President Donald Trump, often raise the specter of voter fraud—including aforementioned baseless fears that people will vote twice or cast ballots under the names of the deceased—in order to push voter laws that disproportionately affect voters of color and those with low incomes. In fact, the president specifically mentioned the issue last week during an address at the first official convening of his voter fraud commission.
“Any form of illegal or fraudulent voting, whether by non-citizens or the deceased, and any form of voter suppression or intimidation must be stopped,” said Trump.
Evidence supports automatic voter registration as a solution to bolster election security. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a December 2011 speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum explained the benefits of this reform measure. “Today, the single biggest barrier to voting in this country is our antiquated registration system,” Holder said. “All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote. The ability to vote is a right—it is not a privilege. Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex voter registration rules. And every election season, state and local officials have to manually process a crush of new applications—most of them handwritten—leaving the system riddled with errors, and, too often, creating chaos at the polls.”
“Fortunately, modern technology provides a straightforward fix for these problems—if we have the political will to bring our election systems into the 21st century. It should be the government’s responsibility to automatically register citizens to vote, by compiling—from databases that already exist—a list of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction,” he said.
Some Republicans have taken notice of automatic voter registration’s potential for good. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) signed an automatic voter registration measure into law in April 2016 after the GOP-held state legislature sent the measure to his desk.
“If you’re making an argument against it, I don’t know what it is,” said Republican state Sen. Craig Blair of West Virginia’s measure, according to the HuffPost. “When you’re automatically registered to vote, that makes your life easier … It does away with the argument that we’re trying to suppress the vote, because it’s not true.”
Other Republicans have voiced their opposition to automatic voter registration, and several GOP governors have vetoed legislation on the policy though it would have boosted registration in their state.
Automatic voter registration has been shown to increase the amount of registered voters. A June report from the Center for American Progress found that “More than 272,000 new people were added to the voter rolls, and more than 98,000 of them were new voters in the November 2016 presidential election,” in the wake of Oregon implementing its version of the policy. “More than 116,000 people registered who were unlikely to have done so otherwise, and more than 40,000 of these previously disengaged people voted in the November election,” it continued.
Sam Munger, director of strategic engagement and senior adviser at the State Innovation Exchange, suggested to the HuffPost in April that expanding the electorate could help Democrats.
“When you expand the electorate, particularly when you expand the electorate among poor communities, communities of color, English as a second language speakers―that tends to benefit progressive candidates,” Munger said.
This theory fits neatly with criticism from civil and voting rights advocates who say the efforts of both the Trump administration and the GOP at large to address their baseless accusations of voter fraud with voter restrictions are simply an attempt to disenfranchise voters.
Some Republicans have even admitted that their aim in passing voter restrictions is to keep likely Democratic voters away from the polls.
Vanita Gupta, who once led the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Justice and now serves as the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, warned last week amid the first meeting of Trump’s commission on voter fraud in an op-ed for the New York Times that “the Trump administration will undertake its enormous voter suppression campaign: through voter purges.”
“The voter rolls are the key,” Gupta wrote. “Registration is one of the main gateways to political participation. It is the difference between a small base of voters pursuing a narrow agenda and an electorate that looks like America.”
Vice President Mike Pence claimed during the meeting that the group had “no preconceived notions or preordained results” about what they would find and that the findings would be “used to strengthen the American people’s confidence in our electoral system.” Automatic voter registration was brought up as an issue that the group would examine, according to the Los Angeles Times.
It remains to be seen if the hotly contested commission will actually take on the subject and address whether automatic voting registration is a reform that could ease its concerns on election security, but evidence suggests increasing the number of eligible voters is exactly what the GOP is trying to avoid.