The last two decades have been pretty bleak for voting rights advocates. President George W. Bush revived the myth of voter fraud to give cover to Republican lawmakers’ efforts to restrict the franchise. The Supreme Court upheld voter ID laws and disemboweled the Voting Rights Act. Democrats’ down-ballot collapse in 2010 paved the way for state-level suppression across the country. The results have been entirely predictable: voter roll purges. Cuts to early voting in minority communities. Ever-more draconian ID and registration requirements. Insidious racial gerrymandering. Voting rights supporters have been on the defensive for most of this battle, and Democrats have not always spent their political capital championing suffrage for all. That’s changing. This year, Democrats in four states have passed landmark legislation to make voting easier and fairer for everyone, and they’ve pursued an ambitious platform designed to restore and expand the franchise in the face of GOP attacks.
Start with Washington state, which vividly illustrates the new urgency of this issue to Democratic lawmakers and constituents. In November 2017, Democrat Manka Dhingra won a special election that tipped the control of the state Senate, giving the party a “trifecta”—control over both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office. Almost immediately, Democrats got to work on a far-reaching slate of voting reforms dubbed the “Access to Democracy” package. Both houses passed the entire package over Republican opposition. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law in March.
The passage of automatic voter registration in Washington is especially worthy of celebration. AVR dramatically simplifies the registration process, signing up citizens to vote when they interact with a state agency, unless they opt out. (When a resident renews her driver’s license, for example, she is also registered to vote.) When Oregon became the first state to pass AVR in 2016, an additional 270,000 people were added to the voter rolls. (Experts estimate AVR could add 400,000 voters to the rolls in Washington.) A Demos study found that Oregon’s AVR bill substantially increased the racial, age, and income diversity of the state’s electorate. Forty-four percent of automatic registrants ended up voting in the next election, increasing the overall turnout rate by about 2–3 percentage points. The overwhelming majority of automatically registered voters chose to remain registered.
Democrats in Washington didn’t stop with AVR. They also included Election Day registration, which appears to drive up turnout. And they threw in automatic pre-registration for older teenagers, ensuring they can vote the day they turn 18.