Alaska's Oil Cash Now Comes With Automatic Voter Registration

Backers say the reform—rare for so red a state—could give Alaska the nation's most comprehensive voter rolls.

Alaskan voters line up to receive their ballots at a polling station in Anchorage on Nov. 2, 2010.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

The same day Alaskans delivered their state to Donald Trump, they voted nearly two to one to embrace a progressive new voter-registration reform.

Under the new law, passed by referendum Tuesday, Alaskans who sign up to receive their annual payouts from the state’s oil wealth trust will also automatically be added to the state's voter rolls.

The vote makes Alaska the sixth state to have approved some form of automatic voter registration. Just two years ago, there were none.

"We should take advantage of any opportunity to cut waste and stop forcing people to fill out more and more forms," the state's U.S. senator, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said in a statement celebrating the result.

More than 63 percent of Alaskans voted in favor of automatic registration, thanks in part to its almost comically broad range of supporters—including Sullivan, the Democrat he ousted in 2014, the state's other current U.S. senator, the state AARP and ACLU, BP, the Alaska Conservation Voters, unions, and industry groups.

“We have certain community members that need to cross rivers and drive 30 miles or 60 miles to a voting location,” Kim Reitmeier, the executive director of the Alaska Native business group ANCSA Regional Association and a co-chair of the campaign for the initiative, said in an interview in June. “Automatic voter registration is taking one step out of our crazy busy lives and trying to make it a little easier.”

Supporters say the law—which will give Alaskans the chance to opt out of being added to the rolls, rather than restrict voting to those who opt in by getting themselves registered—could create one of the most complete and accurate U.S. state voter registries of all time.

That’s because, rather than register people through the DMV, as other AVR states do, Alaska's new system will use the state’s Personal Fund Dividend Division, which handles its annual oil-wealth payouts. Not everyone gets a driver’s license, but in Alaska, almost nobody neglects to sign up each year to get their free dividend check.

Alaska's oil cash is unique, but its passage Tuesday of automatic registration underscores voting-rights advocates’ larger ambitions—to spread the policy beyond blue states and from the DMV to a wider range of agencies with access to citizens’ data.

“In the voting rights community, the idea of universal voter registration through automatic voter registration has never died,” says Lisa Danetz, legal director for the progressive think tank Demos. “It’s always been out there; it’s always been viewed as the goal.”

Automatic-registration bills have been proposed in state legislatures for more than a decade, but none passed until March of last year, when Oregon’s governor signed one into law. California, Vermont, Connecticut (via administrative action), and West Virginia (via bipartisan compromise that included a new voter ID requirement) have since followed suit.

Connecticut's secretary of state announced in September that the first month of automatic DMV voter registration had yielded 14,693 new registrations—more than had taken place at the DMV under the old opt-in system in 2013, 2014, and 2015 combined. And last month, her counterpart in Oregon said the state was on track to register more than 250,000 new voters using its automatic-registration system, which was launched in January.

While all the automatic-registration systems before Alaska’s have been limited to using the DMV, advocates hope future states' laws will go further to automatically register citizens at agencies frequented by some nondrivers. A bill proposed last year in Maryland would have used social service agencies and the state’s Obamacare exchange but died in the state senate.

Not everyone is enthused. Republican governors in New Jersey and Illinois have vetoed their Democratic legislatures’ bills this year, citing concerns about fraud. While top elected Republicans embraced the referendum, and the Alaska GOP stayed neutral, some of its activists came out against it. “There are people out there who don’t know diddly squat about our country,” former state party chairman Peter Goldberg told the Alaska Dispatch News last month. “And I’m not comfortable with people that are totally ignorant about our system voting.”

Progressives say such arguments are undemocratic. “There’s no law that says that there should be a test of effort, availability, time, patience, and intelligence in order to vote,” says City University of New York professor Frances Fox Piven, who in the 1980s co-founded an advocacy group that helped pass the 1993 federal law requiring state agencies to give citizens more opportunities to register to vote, as when they're at the DMV. (States’ compliance with that law has fallen far short of supporters’ hopes.)

Automating voter registration, says Piven, would make it harder for governments to use registration requirements to disenfranchise would-be voters, as they’ve been doing since such requirements first became widespread after the Civil War. (One 1908 New York law, for example, created an obstacle for Jews by requiring voters to register in person either on a Saturday or on Yom Kippur.)

Many supporters see the new spate of automatic voter-registration bills being introduced at the state level as a sharp contrast to the much larger volume of new voting restrictions passed since the GOP’s 2010 down-ballot romp and the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting parts of the Voting Rights Act. More such restrictions could soon come during Donald Trump's presidency, after the Obama administration's Department of Justice has challenged some of the restrictive laws passed in recent years.

During a Tuesday morning press conference about widespread voting obstacles at the polls, an attorney from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice paused to put in a plug for automatic voter registration, which she said would get more people’s registrations completed and up to date long before they show up to vote.

“This is a major reform effort that would ensure that on Election Day, voters are seeing fewer registration problems,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, who directs the Brennan Center's Washington, D.C., office. “Problems that we know are existent throughout the country, and tend to be the largest number of problems that voters are facing.”

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