At a time when Republicans have moved to enact tougher qualifications for voting in states around the country, Democrats have begun to push voter registration laws in the opposite direction in states they control, especially here. In the last few weeks, potential voters in California have been able to register online for the first time, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allow residents to register and vote on Election Day. Connecticut passed similar legislation this year, and voting rights advocacy groups hope as many as five states might join them next year. Democratic lawmakers here described the legislation as a potential counterweight to Republican-backed laws in other parts of the country requiring photo identification to vote and making it more difficult to register. “It’s extremely important that as some states in the nation are moving to suppress voter turnout, California is moving forward to expand voter participation,” said Mike Feuer, a Democratic state assemblyman who sponsored the Election Day registration law. “I hope California is the catalyst for other states to encourage civic engagement and participation.”
The changes in California are hardly revolutionary. Election Day registration, which is already in effect in eight states, began in the early 1970s in states like Maine and Wisconsin. Online registration has now expanded to more than a dozen states since it was first established, in Arizona in 2002. But conservative efforts to require people to show photo ID, a step they say is necessary to prevent voter fraud, seem to have galvanized some Democrats to try to expand ballot access — long an item on the party’s agenda, but one that had not been a top priority in recent years in many states.
In May, Connecticut became the first state in five years to approve Election Day registration. When he signed the bill into law, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement, “Despite the pervasive climate across the U.S. to restrict voting rights, Connecticut has moved in the opposite direction.” Demos, a nonprofit organization that has worked to expand ballot access since the contested 2000 presidential election, has identified five additional states — Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and West Virginia — where they hope to pass Election Day registration laws next year. In each of those states, Democrats control the governorship and at least one chamber of the legislature.