A simple way to broaden voter participation — Updated

(Note: See update below. Secretary of State Jim Condos supports the legislation but notes that some software issues need to be resolved first.)

We in America have some weird attitudes toward voting. It’s fundamental to our democracy, universally cherished as a touchstone of our putative exceptionalism. However…

— Voting is not a Constitutional right, as it clearly should be.

— We lag badly behind most other democracies in voter turnout.

— We seem to be more worried about keeping “the wrong people” from voting than about removing barriers to participation.

— When push comes to shove, we put a higher value on tradition than on access.

A lot of this is the Republican fear that they’d lose ground if more people voted. (And they value winning more than access.) But disdain for our body politic isn’t a conservative monopoly, and removing barriers to voting just isn’t a compelling issue for some reason, even after blatant offenses like the 2000 Presidential election and long lines at urban polling places.

You might think that Vermont would be leading the way on voter access, as it does on many other causes. But no; the state of Oregon is way out in front. Seventeen years ago, Oregon became the first state to hold all its elections with mail-in ballots. And now, it’s become the first state to implement automatic voter registration. 

Under the legislation, every adult citizen in Oregon who has interacted with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division since 2013 but hasn’t registered to vote will receive a ballot in the mail at least 20 days before the next statewide election. The measure is expected to add about 300,000 new voters to the rolls.

That’s nice.

Would it surprise you to know that a similar measure is pending before the Vermont Legislature — but is likely to die in committee without a whimper?

House Bill 458 would establish automatic voter registration through driver’s license applications. It was introduced by Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Socialist Hotbed).

And then?………

Oddly, It was referred to the House Transportation Committee. I realize it touches on the Department of Motor Vehicles, but as a question of policy and law it’s clearly in the purview of Government Operations. Shuffling it off to Transportation seems, at best, a careless thing to do, and at worst, a way to send it to legislative Siberia. Does that sound harsh? Overly conspiratorial? Well, ask the man.

No further action is scheduled. Of course, we’re already past the crossover point for non-fiscal legislation, so it couldn’t be adopted until 2016 in any case. But is there reason to expect action next time around? If so, great. If not, why not?

Can anyone offer a convincing reason to oppose H.458? I haven’t heard one yet.


UPDATE. Secretary of State Jim Condos posted a comment to my original post, noting that he supports the idea of automatic registration (as well as same-day registration), but something needs to be cleared up first. From ThinkProgress: 

Condos said he’s currently working with Vermont’s [Department of Motor Vehicles] on upgrading their technology so that such a policy might be possible in the future, which he said would “benefit democracy in general as it will, most likely, increase voter turnout.”

If DMV software was the motivation for shunting H.458 to the Transportation Committee, the move makes a lot more sense. I take Condos’ conditional endorsement as a very positive sign, and hope the software issues can be cleared up and the bill can advance in the next session. Of course, with software, you never know.


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