Five states (plus Washington, D.C.) recently passed laws or instituted new procedures to implement automatic voter registration, but when Alaska became the sixth such state last month, it was the first to do so at the ballot box. This success offers an important way forward for progressives, because Republicans have been almost implacably hostile to the concept of registering more voters. And with the GOP now dominating state governments at a rate not seen since the Civil War era, activists need to find creative ways to get around Republican obstructionism. But the good news is that many states could use ballot initiatives to overcome GOP opposition and implement automatic registration just like Alaska did.
A little history: In 2015, Oregon became the first state in the union to start automatically registering every eligible voter who interacts with a variety of state agencies, such as the department of motor vehicles, unless they affirmatively opt out. This approach doesn’t touch every unregistered voter, but it’s gone a long way toward expanding the registered voter pool. In fact, Oregon saw nearly 250,000 automatic voter registrations ahead of the 2016 elections, and more than 100,000 people registered that way turned out to vote.
Those are big numbers in a state with a voting-age population of about 3 million, but the potential reach of such laws could go much further. By some estimates, national automatic registration could add roughly 50 million voters to the rolls, and top Democratic leaders like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have endorsed it. Of course, Republican lawmakers stridently oppose automatic registration in a transparent effort to make voting more difficult. And their reasons are as cynical as they come: Eligible non-voters tend to have more progressive views than registered voters, so Republicans see higher turnout as a threat to their power, democracy be damned.
As you can see in the map at the top of this post, though, citizens can circumvent GOP intransigence in a whole lot of states. In fact, the 20 states shaded in green are home to 98 million people—almost a third of the entire country—and that includes battleground states like Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Nevada. These states alone would add millions of voters to the rolls if they implemented automatic registration.
Many of our peer democracies today automatically register everyone who is eligible, and even now, North Dakota doesn’t have voter registration. All that eligible voters have to do there is prove their residency and affirm their citizenship—and voter fraud in North Dakota is still practically nonexistent. When the incoming Trump administration has signaled its support for a new wave of voter suppression laws, automatic registration could go a long way toward make voting easier and would be an unquestionable boon for democracy.