Politics

Chalk One Up for Democracy, With Automatic Voter Registration

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

The few, the proud, the voters.

Photographer: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald, via Getty Images

Want some good news? Illinois has become the 10th state with some form of automatic voter registration. Most of those are Democratic states, but in Illinois a Republican governor signed the bill, and Georgia, Alaska and West Virginia have adopted this reform as well. (An 11th state, North Dakota, doesn't have voter registration at all.) So it's not entirely partisan.

It shouldn't be partisan. The case for automatic voter registration is, essentially, the same as the case for universal suffrage: Voting is one of the fundamental acts of democracies, and therefore voting should be easy for everyone eligible. Indeed, in most nations registration is automatic. The case for making voting hard has always been indistinguishable from the case for limiting the franchise to only certain people, whether those privileged few are marked off by ethnicity, religion, education or even just interest in politics. It doesn't matter: Making voting difficult is a way to restrict full citizenship to only a select few.

Indeed, many of the ways that the U.S. makes voting hard aren't even done to limit who votes. Federalism (whatever its historical sins) and separation of powers automatically produce a complicated ballot of federal, state, city and county officials, usually including both executive and legislative positions at each level. Direct and separate elections of (for example) separate executive officials at the state level complicates things further. One can make strong arguments that each of these is good for democracy, but they also add to the voters' burden. And that's before the really long ballot gets going, with state and local propositions, judicial elections, special districts, and on and on. In some cases, the (very) long ballot may be a deliberate attempt to wear out the attention of less engaged voters.

Other devices, including voter registration, were clearly adopted as methods of reducing voting. Another good example is municipal and other elections held all over the calendar, instead of consolidated to the same dates as federal elections. Everyone involved in politics understands that far fewer people will vote on a random day in May than on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and elections are broken up like that because it helps one group of candidates and hurts others. 

Those with greater interest in politics and more valuable political resources (and no, money isn't the only valuable resource) are always going to be empowered by democratic systems. There's not a whole lot anyone can do about that. But there is plenty a political system can do to make that inequality far worse, and make it matter a lot more. Making voter registration difficult is, as far as I'm concerned, at the very top of the list of ways to make things worse. Voting rights have been under assault since ... well, the truth is that voting rights are always under assault. But it's good to see those who favor universal suffrage doing something effective about it.

 

And here are today's recommended links on politics:

1. Julia Azari with a must-read on Trump as a 19th-century president.

2. Laia Balcells and Gerard Torrats-Espinosa at the Monkey Cage on terrorist attacks and political participation

3. Jane Chong and Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare think it's time for impeachment. I wrote about this already this week; I don't think the case for moving forward now is quite as clear-cut as they make it, but it's by no means nuts, either. But Congress almost certainly shouldn't take this step unless there's at least a reasonable chance it would lead to successful impeachment and conviction. What we're seeing more than anything is how the failure of the Senate to establish a dedicated committee to look into the Russia scandal and other Trump malfeasance really matters. Imagine if we had spent this summer, or perhaps this fall, with a series of hearings clearly illuminating exactly what has happened and why it matters. Instead, we've had a series of hit-and-miss hearings. It's not that Congress, and especially the Senate, have ignored the scandals, but that they haven't used the method best suited for the situation. Even now, a Senate select committee would be the best next step. 

4. My View colleague Tim Duy on Janet Yellen speaking out on financial regulation

5. And a nice one from Politico's Josh Dawsey on the photo-op president

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    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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