Since 2010, 25 states passed laws making it harder to vote. Some required voters to present photo ID at the polls; others restricted early voting or the re-enfranchisement of ex-felons. In 17 of the states, Republicans control the legislature and the governorship. Liberals have scrambled to get the laws repealed or overturned in court. But with exceptions such as the July decision by a federal appeals court to block several new voting restrictions in North Carolina, most of the new laws remain on the books and will be in effect in November.
Now some of the bluest states are passing laws to make voting easier. Since the start of 2015, five states have approved automatic voter registration measures, in which government agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles add qualified citizens to the voter rolls unless they opt out. “The question should be, Why would we ever have a barrier?” says Democrat Jennifer Williamson, state house majority leader in Oregon, where the nation’s first AVR measure was signed into law in March 2015. “We should be constructing a system where the default is voting.”
Since the law took effect in January, Oregon says it’s automatically registered more than 222,000 voters; that’s roughly equivalent to 30 percent of the state’s unregistered citizens, according to census data. Throughout the past year and a half, three more states where Democrats control all branches of government—California, Connecticut, and Vermont—have adopted AVR. Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama have endorsed the policy, and bills have been introduced in the majority of state legislatures and in both houses of Congress.
Passing such laws in states where power is split between the parties can be difficult. New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, vetoed an AVR measure in 2015 and again on Aug. 18, saying it should be renamed “the Voter Fraud Enhancement and Permission Act.” An Illinois bill passed both houses of the Democratic-controlled legislature with significant Republican support, but Republican Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed it on Aug. 12.
The bill could still become law during the legislature’s November session if it retains enough bipartisan support to provide a three-fifths majority in the state house and senate to override the governor’s veto. Illinois state Senator Kyle McCarter, a Republican who opposes automatic registration, says he doubts his Democratic colleagues would be pushing it if it wasn’t going to give them an edge in elections. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to participate in our government,” he says. “I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people to make a little effort.” In a rare compromise, West Virginia, where Republicans control the legislature but Democrats hold the governor’s mansion, passed a law in April that combined AVR with a new voter ID requirement.
AVR’s best chance to advance in solidly Republican states may come through ballot initiatives. On Nov. 8, Alaskans will vote on a proposal to automate registration using a particularly popular agency, the Permanent Fund Dividend Division, which distributes annual payouts to residents from the state’s oil wealth trust. “If you’re a person who forgets to apply, people talk about it for years afterwards, because it’s a big check,” says John-Henry Heckendorn, a strategist for the campaign supporting the initiative. “This could theoretically create one of the most accurate and updated voter registration systems in U.S. history.”
North Dakota takes an entirely different approach. It eliminated voter registration in 1951 and ever since has allowed any qualified voter who shows up with the required identification to vote. “It goes very, very, very easily,” says Republican Alvin Jaeger, who’s served as North Dakota’s secretary of state since 1993. “Dead people don’t vote in North Dakota, and neither do dogs.”