Since America’s founding, the franchise has been dramatically expanded in waves: first, universal suffrage for all men (first, through the abolition of property ownership requirements for white men, then the 15th Amendment) then the expansion of suffrage to women and finally the Voting Rights Act, which abolished poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, the franchise is still under fire, from racially biased voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement, as well as our complex registration system. Automatic voter registration and the abolition of voter ID laws could be part of the next wave of the slow march to true democracy. Recently, Hillary Clinton called out Republicans for their strategy of suppressing the vote and then called for automatic voting registration. While many pundits quickly chalked this up to an attempt to revive “the Obama coalition,” in fact, Clinton has been pushing for democracy reforms since before “the Obama coalition” existed. In 2005 she and Senator Barbara Boxer put forward the “Count Every Vote Act.” The law would have made same-day registration the law of the land, expanded early voting and made election day a holiday. In addition, Clinton has been fighting against felon disenfranchisement, though Rand Paul, who has a penchant for receiving praise for things he hasn’t done, has recently been garnering credit for his talk on the subject.
These three reforms — automatic voter registration, an end to voter ID, and an end to felon disenfranchisement — are hugely important. (Clinton also pushed for an expansion of early voting and making election day a holiday, no doubt significant reforms in themselves.) A new study by Michael McDonald, Enrijeta Shino and Daniel Smith suggests that reforms that make voting easier (like early voting) increase turnout, while those that make it more difficult (like voter ID laws) decrease turnout. This is important because there is growing evidence that conservatives are using voter ID laws to suppress low-income and Black voters.