People in these United States do not have to exert any effort to register with a government to have the Bill of Rights protect them.
We do not need to register to have and exercise our rights to free speech, to religious freedom, to the right to a jury trial, or to be free from warrant-less searches.
Why, then, with these foundational rights being automatic, should we have to register to vote to exercise the right that is at the core of our democracy – the right to vote? Why is not voter registration automatic when a person comes of age or citizenship is granted to an immigrant?
The state should bear the burden to show that an individual is not entitled to vote, rather than place the burden on us to prove our entitlement to vote, an entitlement each of us has by virtue of citizenship.
To be true to the principles of democracy, we need to flip over the way that we have looked at voting and reverse the efforts of some to restrict our right to vote.
In its earliest days, Texas made voting easy—men only needed be a resident with the intent to become a citizen in order to vote. Yet, those people not eligible to vote — women and minorities — had to wage lengthy struggles to vote. And minorities still had to overcome race-based restrictions on voting. The Civil Rights era yielded the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which cut away many impediments placed against minority citizens’ franchise.
Unfortunately, certain state governments are taking us backwards by asserting the notion they can restrict the right to vote. The naysayers talk loudly about preventing fraud, although the best evidence they can produce are a few infinitesimal incidents that would never have affected any electoral outcome.
Not only should voter registration be automatic, but we should advocate for and facilitate the actual voting process. What legitimate reason exists not to have weekend voting, like other countries have, so that working people don’t have to scramble home and then to the polls? Likewise, providing two to three weeks of early voting makes the process easier for more voters regardless of their circumstances (children, travel, illness, injury, etc.). And, why not have on-line e-voting? If we can conduct myriad secure bank transactions on-line, why not vote on line?
And perhaps voting should be mandatory, as it is in 20 other countries, to increase turnout. If citizens want to benefit from a democracy, voting should be their responsibility.
Oregon, which conducts elections by mail only and has one of the highest percentages of registered voters in the nation (73 percent), just enacted a law that ensures that everyone interacting with the Department of Motor Vehicles since 2013 will automatically receive ballots. This simple, inclusive process will add some 300,000 people to the voter rolls. California appears on the verge of automatic registration, which will add as many as seven million voters.
Texas has poor voter registration and election turnout rates. If Texas followed Oregon’s lead, it could add as many as five million voters to the rolls, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s data. The percentage of Texas registered voters is now lower than it was in 2008. Texas consistently has one of the country’s lowest election turn-outs. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Performance Index shows more regression in Texas than in most other states.
We know from a 2013 human rights report by the Texas Civil Rights Project that the Secretary of State and school districts around Texas have been derelict in their statutory duty to offer voter registration to high school students who would be of age to vote in the following November election. That report indicates that as many as 400,000 eligible students were not offered the opportunity to register to vote in a year-and-a-half span.
Automatic voter registration and easier voting opportunities could go far toward resolving these problematic issues and others gratuitously created by the Texas Legislature (such as tight-fisted ID requirements). Taking reasonable, secure, and fair actions to register persons to vote automatically and creating numerous opportunities to cast a vote would make the false fear of fraud irrelevant.
When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, essentially only white male proper owners could vote. Much has changed in the 218 years since, including our political philosophy about democracy.
One of those profound changes has been expanding the franchise and stripping away barriers of race, sex, and class. The franchise is a fundamental right, and the state should do everything in its power to protect the citizens’ right to vote, rather than throwing up barriers and discouraging people’s participation in civil society. We must move forward, not backwards, in allowing and promoting the free exercise of the most democratic of all citizen actions – voting.
On July 4th this year, let’s use it as an occasion to fulfill the “great task” that Abraham Lincoln laid before us of preserving a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” by changing the narrative on the right to vote.
Editor’s Note: The guest column was co-written by Jimmy Alan Hall and James Harrington. Hall is an Austin, Texas-based attorney who previously worked with the Texas Legislature during redistricting. Harrington’s bio is listed below.