The state-by-state push to enact automatic voter registration laws is nearing a tipping point. Or so its supporters hope. Oregon began proactively adding unregistered citizens to its rolls last month. California will soon follow suit under a state law signed last year. Serious efforts to enact similar proposals through legislative action or citizen ballot initiatives are underway in several other states, including Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio. The drive has won endorsements in the last year from President Obama and both Democrats running to succeed him in the White House. Those are all indisputable signs of momentum for an idea now at the core of advocacy efforts to expand access to the ballot box—that state governments should make it easier to vote by simply registering their eligible citizens, rather than forcing them to do it themselves. Yet while the campaign has gained steam, it has also cleaved along party lines in a way that threatens to turn automatic registration into one more partisan flashpoint in the battle over voting laws. “I have met many Democrats that are convinced that Republican are trying to keep their party from voting, and I’ve met many Republicans that are convinced that Democrats are cheating,” said Kim Wyman, the top elections official in Washington state. “And it’s really hard to convince either side otherwise.”
Wyman is Washington’s secretary of state and a rare Republican who has joined Democrats in pushing for a new automatic registration law. The proposal she supports passed the state House with some bipartisan support, but it is likely to get bottled up in the Republican-controlled Senate. “There are very, very long odds right now,” she said.
The automatic voter registration laws in Oregon and California passed on strict party-line votes, and while proposals in states run by Democrats stand the best chance of moving forward, the effort is running into complications in part because of another progressive priority: expanding rights for undocumented immigrants. Proposals modeled on the Oregon bill call for the state’s motor vehicle department to run the registration program by adding people to the rolls when then apply for a driver’s license. But in states like Maryland that have recently signed off on giving licenses to undocumented immigrants, new laws prohibit DMV officials from checking a person’s citizenship status and verifying whether they are actually eligible to vote.