At first glance, this does not seem a season of political hope: With the November election still months away, voters’ patience already is frayed by negative, exhausting nominating fights. Those who had the stomach to go to the polls faced, in some places, hours-long lines and other hiccups just to cast a ballot as new voting restrictions take effect across the country. But breaking through the negativity comes encouraging news: Two weeks ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bipartisan bill making Vermont the fourth state in the country to enact automatic voter registration — a revolutionary policy that can help add millions of new voters nationwide. And it’s getting broad, bipartisan support. With outdated voting systems causing problems and confusion at the polls, automatic registration offers a new way out of the voting wars, and a much-needed reprieve from the partisan bickering plaguing our political debate.
It’s a bright spot in a year that’s seen many localities making it harder for people to vote. In 2016, 17 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. We’ve already seen their impact in the primaries. Wisconsin’s strict photo ID law made it harder for students to vote. North Carolina’s series of restrictions caused confusion on Election Day, and while a federal judge just upheld those restrictions, he also had to acknowledge how difficult it was for some voters to get the necessary ID.
Underfunded and antiquated voting systems have also wreaked havoc. Arizona severely cut polling places, leaving voters in five-hour lines. New York officials accidentally removed more than 100,000 voters from the rolls, and many more could not even participate because they did not change their party affiliation in time.
Whether you support Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, everyone can agree: We should all be able to go to the polls and cast a ballot for our candidate without major hold-ups. Automatic voter registration can help fix this mess. Oregon and California led the way, passing bills in 2015. But this year, West Virginia and Vermont enacted new laws, this time with bipartisan, nearly unanimous legislative support — a welcome change in this era of sharply divided politics.