President Obama backed a bill in Illinois last week that would automatically register people to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or state ID. “That will protect the fundamental right of everybody,” he said. “Democrats, Republicans, independents, seniors, folks with disabilities, the men and women of our military — it would make sure that it was easier for them to vote and have their vote counted.” But so far, support for automatic voter registration — now being considered in about two dozen states — has pretty much broken down along party lines. Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, generally think it’s a great way to expand the electorate. But Republicans are far more wary. Some say they’re worried it could expose voter rolls to mistakes and fraud. And there’s a philosophical divide, too. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, says it’s important that citizens take the initiative when it comes to registering. “If they just get it, because they’re turning a certain age, it kind of takes away from the value that should be associated with the ability to participate,” he said. “Because it’s a privilege to participate in the electoral process in our state and in our nation, and people need to recognize that.”
Unspoken, is the concern over which, if any, group might benefit from the change. Will more Democrats or Republicans be signed up if it’s done automatically at the DMV? And it’s not just party breakdown at stake. New York City lawmakers are worried that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s automatic voter registration plan will skew voter rolls in favor of the suburbs and rural areas — where residents are more likely to go to the DMV for a driver’s license.
That’s why everyone is closely watching what happens in Oregon, the first state to enact automatic voter registration. (California has passed an automatic voter-registration law, but it won’t go into effect for at least a year.)