Lazy Citizens Have Rights, Too

Got a birth certificate?

Photographer: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

If California is a national trendsetter, there's reason to be optimistic about the future of voting in the U.S.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a bill making California the second state, after Oregon, to adopt automatic voter registration. The idea is simple enough: Since people submit official proof of identity and residency when registering for a driver's license, why force them to resubmit it to register to vote? California will automatically enroll eligible drivers as voters, after giving them the chance to opt out.

In most states, registering to vote is simple enough: Print out a form (or get one from a government office) and mail it in. Twenty-six states also offer online registration. Nevertheless, millions of Americans are eligible to vote but not registered. And the fact that so many people -- most of them able-bodied -- just don't bother speaks to laziness, indifference or cynicism. Or all three.

Voting is more than an individual right, however. It's a public good, the foundation of democracy. So the government has a compelling interest in making registration as easy as possible.

Some states are moving in the opposite direction. In Arizona and Kansas, voters must show proof of citizenship -- a birth certificate or passport, for example -- to register. Since 2013, when this requirement took effect in Kansas, more than 36,000 residents have attempted to register without submitting such proof. The state is now purging them from the rolls, forcing them to re-register.

But requiring citizens to prove their status creates a far bigger problem than the one it solves. Very few of the roughly 24 million noncitizens who live in the U.S. register to vote, and even fewer cast ballots.

A more efficient way to ensure that only citizens are on the voter rolls is for government agencies to share information. Many people submit proof of citizenship when getting a driver's license. And states like California that issue driver's licenses to noncitizens also know which drivers should not be registered to vote.

Databases can be imperfect and errors are bound to occur. To avoid disenfranchising any voters, those who are flagged as possible noncitizens should have the opportunity to respond -- and vote, via a sworn affidavit ballot. By the same token, safeguards are essential to protect against the possibility that mistakes by government officials will lead to noncitizens voting.

In general, though, more data sharing would help election officials clean up their voter rolls, which are now riddled with errors.

The right to be lazy may not be in the Constitution, but it is a profoundly American one. And all American citizens, lazy or not, should be ensured the right to vote.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.