Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Frank Geng
Frank Geng is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate editor of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal.
On October 10th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows Californian Department of Motor Vehicles offices to automatically register voters.  The legislation received strong support from the Democrat-controlled state legislature and Democratic Governor.  Supporters of the California New Motor Voter Act see this as an opportunity to boost voter participation in a state that experienced a record low turnout for last November’s general election that saw only 42 percent of voters participate.  Opponents argue that the bill will increase the risk of voter fraud, and will effectively coerce citizens to participate in a voluntary process that some prefer to stay out of.  The argument that the law will constitute voter coercion is extraneous, because the law does not mandate voter registration; those registering for a driver’s license or state ID will automatically be enrolled unless they choose to opt out. The issue with this legislation is not its mechanics or implantation; it is its lateness. Low voter turnout has plagued the US polls for years, so the fact that it is only now, in 2015, that we have started a major movement towards mandatory voting speaks to the inefficiencies of our legislative processes, and more broadly to the failure of our government to instill a sense of accountability in our citizens. The lack of proactivity in our government’s response to an increasingly apathetic people has injured our democracy, so the effectiveness of this bill will be of great import to the nation.
Granted, California is not the only state to have passed an automatic registration system—Oregon did so this past March, and 17 other states have introduced similar bills in their state legislatures.  New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature would have implemented a similar law had Governor Chris Christie not vetoed the bill.  Governor Christie claims that low turnout is not necessarily the result of obstacles to voter registration and to voting itself, but rather that “there’s nothing on the ballot [the people] want to vote for,” which is a somewhat reasonable claim given the public’s current disillusionment with our political system.  Christie continues, “there’s no question in my mind that there are some advocates of this [bill] who are looking to increase the opportunity for voter fraud…I think there’s much more politics behind this than there is democracy.” The fear of increased voter fraud is unfounded, but what is even more irrational is the belief that increased voter registration is primarily fueled by political machinations, as though voting were not the foundation of the democratic process. Christie’s concerns resonate with the historical, and current, Republican policies that encourage voting restrictions. Outside of the realm of New Jersey politics, leaders including Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have come out in favor of mandated voter registration. Thus, the result of the 2016 Presidential Race will have great consequences for our nation’s democratic process. The issue, however, is more deeply rooted in red states where increased voter participation has historically hurt their political success.
What about the numbers? We have already examined the political arguments for and against automatic voter registration—the real effects of such a policy are a little more complicated to examine. The U.S. does not have much historical data to work with, so it will be a while before we can fully investigate the effects of automatic voter registration. Staci L. Rhine of Wittenberg University, however, found that the removal of voter registration requirements increased turnout by roughly 3 percentage points.  Similarly studies by MIT show that the implementation of registration requirements decreases voter turnout by roughly 4 percentage points.  A similar system that pre-registers the youth population saw their voting turnout boosted by up to 13 percentage points.  In California,where there are an estimated 6 to 7 million unregistered voters, even a marginal increase, such as those found in these recent studies, means a lot. 
Given the provisions of the 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments, which prohibit the government’s restriction of voting based on a person’s race, gender, or age, it seems that voter registration requirements either should not exist, or must not discriminate against a set population of people. No states restrict voter registration based on any of these demographic identifiers; they simply make it more tedious for certain populations. It is inexplicable that only 26 states offer online registration, when the internet can be accessed by almost the entire population.  Similarly, there is little logical basis for requiring people to register during a limited pre-set time period before an election. Though some states do offer same day voting, so someone can register on the same day that they vote, it is a small minority. Therefore, even if someone is not strictly prohibited from registering to vote, the obstacles put in place by the government are enough to discourage it.
Therefore, the example set by Governor Brown is encouraging. It is time to stop eulogizing the death of the American democracy, and start piloting legislation that removes voter registration requirements through, what are often divided, legislatures and across the desks of executives.In countries that have high voter turnout—often as a result of compulsory voting—there is evidence of greater political equality. Although the U.S. has not quite reached the frontier of compulsory voting, automatic registration is the next progressive step.
 Lachman, Samantha. “Jerry Brown Signs Automatic Voter Registration in California”. Huffington Post. 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/automatic-voter-registration-california_561680d5e4b0082030a15119 .
 Lachman, Samantha. “Chris Christie Looks Likely to Veto New Jersey Voting Reforms”. Huffington Post. 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/09/chris-christie-new-jersey_n_7761708.html.
 Rhine, Staci L. “Registration Reform and Turnout Change in the American States”. American Politics Research. 2012.
 Ansolabehere, Stephen. Konisky, David M. “The Introduction of Voter Registration and Its Effect on Turnout”. Political Analysis. 14. 2005.
 Holbein, John B. Hillygus, D. Sunshine. “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout”. American Journal of Political Science. 2014.
 Lachman, “Jerry Brown Signs”.
 “Online Voter Registration” National Conference of State Legislatures. 2015.
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