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Hillary Sides With Democracy

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Hillary Clinton’s call for universal automatic voter registration is a major positive development in the voting wars. She puts the national Democratic Party squarely behind Oregon’s recent innovative registration law.

As Cass Sunstein says at View, Americans don't need to register with the government to be entitled to other rights; voting shouldn't be any different.

It’s pretty simple: If we want everyone to participate, then voting should be easy. Voter registration in the U.S. is a real, and unnecessary, hurdle. That’s no coincidence: Registration was originally set up around the turn of the previous century in part by those concerned that the wrong kinds of people (mostly recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe) would vote.

There are plenty of ideas to make voting easier, but removing registration as a hurdle is the big one, on both a practical and theoretical level.

As a practical matter, political scientists have repeatedly found that making registration easy will increase turnout. Indeed, the evidence when it comes to some voting reforms (early and absentee voting, making Election Day a holiday) is mixed. Some political scientists find “substitution” effects -- in many cases, early voting just allows people who would vote anyway to do so at more convenient times, but it doesn’t encourage new voters to participate (for a review of the evidence, see this new paper). But automatic or simpler registration works.

To me, however, the strongest arguments are based on democratic theory. Democracy, a system of government in which people rule themselves, is extremely difficult even with the best intentions. A core problem is that people have different resources -- money, of course, but also skills that are politically valuable, time available for political action, and even interest in government. Universal suffrage is a partial remedy, but that only works if voting is easily and equally accessible.

That’s why registration is so corrosive. Even if it’s not much of a barrier, those who are deterred are almost certainly the same people who lose out in a system that cannot (and in my view should not) help but reward those with more resources. Voting itself should be easy for the same reasons, but registration holds a special status as the entryway to politics.

Granted, there is a partisan component to voting as an issue. Democrats favor easier voting because they think it will help them, which is why Republicans oppose it. The evidence is that even compulsory voting wouldn’t make much of a difference (see Jamelle Bouie and Greg Sargent for the politics of automatic registration as an election issue). 

Is fraud a concern? I don't think so. Yes, people could find ways to beat an automatic system, but they can find ways to beat the current system, too. Fraud is an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct. If we want a bigger military, we're going to get more procurement fraud; if we want to make it easy to vote, some may try to abuse that. 

To me, it’s simple. Policies that make it easy to vote are good for democracy; policies that make it hard aren't. I’ll support anything, even selective measures, that make it easier to vote. After all, if both parties reduce voting barriers for their supporters, eventually we’ll get to the right place. Universal automatic registration has the virtue of not being selective. It’s the right reform, and kudos to Clinton for moving her once-indifferent party in that direction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net