IT SHOULDN’T be a surprise that Hillary Clinton has tough words for Republicans. Not all of them will be as deserved as the brickbats she lobbed at them on Thursday.
“I call on Republicans at all levels of government with all manner of ambition to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say,” she said in calling for a system of universal and automatic voter registration instead of pernicious new limits on the franchise.
Politicians have waged war over voting rights over the past several years, with Democrats trying to maximize access to the ballot box and Republicans attempting to limit it. Think about that: A major political party has devoted time and effort to discouraging eligible voters from exercising their most fundamental democratic right.
GOP leaders justify their anti-voting agenda as an answer to voter fraud, but voter fraud is an imaginary problem. In fact, Republicans want fewer people to vote, especially fewer poor and minority people, because low turnout tends to favor the GOP, and poor and minority people tend to vote for Democrats. To be sure, Democrats have political incentives to increase turnout. But that doesn’t discredit the overriding logic that democracy is healthier when more people participate.
The debate about whether the government should make it harder to vote should give way to a discussion about how to maximize turnout. Some have suggested mandatory voting, which is both unrealistic and raises tough questions concerning liberty and conscience. Ms. Clinton’s universal registration idea is less radical and raises no such questions.
Voter registration has operated as a barrier to voting since states began instituting it in the 19th century. Though the Voting Rights Act and other measures ended the worst registration abuses, most of the country still uses a two-step voting process that requires opt-in registration, followed by actual voting. Perhaps the least surprising research social scientists have ever conducted has found that higher registration burdens lead to less voting. And there’s no good reason for them.
Some states have already instituted same-day registration, merging registration and voting into the same session. American University’s Jan Leighley and New York University’s Jonathan Nagler found that this has produced a 6-percentage-point increase in turnout. Automatic registration should do better than that. Automatically registered voters would get election information in the mail, encouraging them to vote, whereas same-day registration just helps those who already know when Election Day is and where their polling places are. Even Republicans should be attracted to the idea of more comprehensive, fraud-resistant voter rolls automatically filled and updated with information collected by DMVs, post offices, the Census Bureau or other government agencies.
Automatic registration is not a panacea. It wouldn’t result in anything like 100 percent turnout, especially for the country’s frequent non-presidential elections. If the system is left up to states, implementation would vary widely. A federally run system would be better, though policymakers would have to ensure that federal officials can gather the needed information, and it’s hard to imagine Congress approving this approach.