By: Mary Boothe
In May 2015, The Automatic Voter Registration Amendment Act was introduced to the D.C. Council by council members Charles Allen, Brianne Nadeau, Jack Evans, Mary Cheh, Elissa Silverman, and Anita Bonds, and former at-large council member Vincent Orange, and co-sponsored by at-large council member David Grosso. The bill has since unanimously passed the D.C. Council. However, to become a law it still needs to be signed by the mayor, Muriel Bowser, and sent for a 30-day review on Capitol Hill. Allowing automatic voter registration will still be a landmark move that will ease the burden of registration for the thousands of eligible D.C. voters.
The Automatic Voter Registration Amendment Act changes Washington D.C. from an opt-in registration system to an opt-out registration system. This means that if the bill passes, D.C. residents will be able to go to the DMV to obtain IDs as normal, but now, as part of the form to receive an ID, the resident will simultaneously give voter registration information. All residents receiving an ID will be automatically registered to vote, unless they mark a box saying that they decline registration. The information collected by the DMV will be continuously electronically transferred to the Election officials, keeping voter information up-to-date.
The main goal of automatic registration is to significantly increase voter registration, and consequently voter participation, by decreasing the burden on the voter to actively register. The push to increase voter registration first began with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. This federal law requires certain federal agencies to provide voter registration, including the DMV. So as long as state law works in conjunction with the NVRA and not to replace it, states that employ automatic voter registration should not have to worry about conflict. Moreover, automatic registration has other benefits, such as lessening administrative errors, reducing voter fraud, increasing voter convenience, and cleaning up election rolls.
Despite the obvious advantages to making voter registration automatic for residents, only five other states have approved a similar automatic voter registration system. If the D.C. bill passes, D.C. will join Oregon, West Virginia, Vermont, California, and Connecticut in automatic voter registration. Illinois and New Jersey almost joined this small group of states, but in both cases the state governor vetoed the bill despite bi-partisan support.
That minor setback has not stopped automatic registration advocacy groups from spreading the message. It appears that Illinois and New Jersey could soon become outliers to the automatic voter registration trend sweeping the nation. In 2016 alone, twenty-nine states and Washington D.C. have considered some form of automatic voter registration with automatic electronic transfer to election officials. While most programs would be constrained to the DMV, some also include extending automatic voter registration services to other social service agencies (e.g. state health and human service departments).
Already, Washington D.C. takes several measures to ease voter registration and Election Day voting for residents. Not only does D.C. have online voter registration, but also same day registration and early voting. Hopefully, automatic voter registration will be one more benefit D.C. can soon offer to residents, easing voting burdens and ensuring everyone has the right to a fair and equal vote.