voting rights

Voting rights 2018: One step forward, two steps back

Depending on what state you live in and who you are, your voting rights may be either expanding or contracting this year. At the same time that some jurisdictions are making it easier to register and vote, others are continuing their efforts to make it harder to vote and to essentially disenfranchise voters whose views they don’t like. Here’s a brief rundown on the push-me-pull-you situation.

 One step forward

On August 9, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker [R] signed into law a bill that makes voter registration automatic throughout the state. The bill had passed the state legislature with an overwhelming majority—in the State Senate, it was unanimous. Under the new law, people will be automatically registered when they have transactions with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, or when they interact with the state’s Medicaid system, known as MassCare.

The new law [AVR] is set to be fully implemented in time for the 2020 presidential election. It could reach estimated 680,000 eligible voters who are not yet on the rolls. According to, “An analysis by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress estimated that AVR could enroll 437,000 new Massachusetts voters, of whom 156,000 could be expected to show up at the polls.”

Massachusetts now joins more than a dozen other states that have enacted similar AVR systems. More than a dozen other states including New Jersey and Washington have enacted similar automatic voter registration systems. Massachusetts’s law also raises the penalty for voter fraud to a fine of up to $10,000 or a five-year prison sentence.

And there may be more to come. According to the Brennan Center, “This year alone, 20 states have introduced legislation to implement or expand automatic registration, and an additional eight states had bills carry over from the 2017 legislative session.”

AVR: Opting out, rather than opting in

How does automatic voter registration work? Here’s the Brennan Center’s explanation and rationale:

AVR makes two simple, yet transformative, changes to the way our country has traditionally registered voters.  First, AVR makes voter registration “opt-out” instead of “opt-in”—eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote or have their existing registration information updated, unless they affirmatively decline. Again, the voter can opt-out; it is not compulsory registration. Second, those agencies transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials instead of using paper registration forms. These common-sense reforms increase registration rates, clean up the voter rolls, and save states money.

States that have already implemented AVR have seen positive results, says the Brennan Center:

Since Oregon became the first state in the nation to implement AVR in 2016, the Beaver State has seen registration rates quadruple at DMV offices. In the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont on New Year’s Day 2017, registration rates jumped 62 percent when compared to the first half of 2016.

By Election Day 2018, reports NPR, almost of quarter of Americans will live in states where filling out voter registration postcards will be a thing of the past as more and more states are moving to automatic voter registration.

That’s the good news. Now for the flip side.

Two steps back

Unfortunately, some people view AVR not as positive steps toward democratic engagement, but rather as threats to their entrenched power. Over the years, we have witnessed many attempts, in many states, to restrict voting rights, disenfranchise certain groups, and generally make voting more inconvenient for people whose voting patterns threaten the Republican status quo.

This year, however, has marked a turning point in voter suppression efforts, as the Department of Justice itself–which was once an ally for voting-rights advocates—has switched sides. In August, Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave the green light to states’ efforts to drastically purge their voter-registration rolls—a major reversal of previous administrations’ efforts to protect the vote.

According to Slate:

The DOJ has withdrawn its opposition to Texas’ draconian voter ID law and to mandatory arbitration agreements designed to thwart class actions. Now the agency has made another about-face: ..It dropped its objections to Ohio’s voter purge procedures, which kick voters off the rolls for skipping elections. The DOJ is now arguing that such maneuvers are perfectly legal.

In addition, the New York Times reports that, under Sessions, the DOJ is not going to oppose the following voter-suppression efforts:

  • A new voter ID law that could shut out many Native Americans from the polls in North Dakota.

  • A strict rule on the collection of absentee ballots in Arizona that is being challenged by votig-rights advocates as a form of voter suppression.

  • Officials in Georgia who are scrubbing voters from registration rolls if their details do not exactly match other records, a practice that voting rights groups say unfairly targets minority voters.

The Sessions department’s most prominent voting-rights lawsuit so far forced Kentucky state officials last month to step up the culling from registration rolls of voters who have moved.

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the department has filed legal briefs in support of states that are resisting court orders to rein in voter ID requirements, stop aggressive purges of voter rolls and redraw political boundaries that have unfairly diluted minority voting power — all practices that were opposed under President Obama’s attorneys general.

If my understanding of America history is correct, since the beginning of this country—with some notable exceptions—we have been on a path of expanding rights, becoming more inclusive, and encouraging engagement. So, it’s heartening to see states building on that tradition and finding ways to enable more people to participate in the fundamental activity of a democracy—voting. Unfortunately, the Trump administration and its spineless Republican enablers [or should I say co-conspirators] clearly have a different trajectory in mind. We can only hope that enlightened thinking will prevail, and that our democracy—warts and all—will survive this dark period in American politics.