Voters across the country scored significant victories in the past few weeks. A federal judge struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act. A Pennsylvania ID law is dead after the governor decided not to appeal a decision ruling it unconstitutional. And two states passed laws expanding voter registration access. Still, fights continue in dozens of states, and a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act is stalled in Congress. At a time of historic dysfunction and congressional inaction, it is not enough to rely on the courts. It is high time for a greater executive role in safeguarding the right to vote. President Obama has the authority to act, and he must. After long lines marred the 2012 election, the president formed a bipartisan commission to identify best practices and new ideas to improve the voting experience. The commission’s final report, issued in January, contained potent recommendations for reform on the state and local level. Obama also spoke out recently on the grim reality of voting restrictions. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” the president told a group of activists in April. These efforts to restrict the right to vote will not go unchallenged, he assured the audience. But if the president’s words are to be more than mere flourishes, he must assert his leadership through executive action. The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a proposal outlining several concrete steps Obama can take to improve elections in America.
The integrity of our democracy depends in large part on voter participation, but at least 50 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to simplify the process by requiring certain government agencies to provide registration services. The law immediately boosted registration, with more than 30 million people signing up using the new methods in the first year alone. In the two decades since, 141 million Americans registered through government agencies.
But this increase came almost entirely from state agencies. The law also permits federal agencies to offer registration services. And despite requests from a number of states, most have not. If Obama directed federal agencies to provide registration services, the millions of Americans who interact with these agencies would have more opportunities to sign up. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services could expand registration opportunities to the 700,000 new Americans who naturalize each year, for example. More than 21 million veterans could benefit from registration opportunities through the Department of Veterans Affairs.