In recent years, the U.S. government, at both the local and national level, has pushed for instituting new methods of registering citizens as voters to remedy the middling voter turnout in elections. Automatic voter registration is one of the methods proposed as of late, which is not available in a large part of the United States.
Voter turnout rates in the United States are some of the lowest in the developed world, only beating out Japan and Switzerland. In 2012, there were 241 million people of voting age, but only 130.2 million cast their ballots in the general election, which amounts to a turnout rate of 58.6 percent. One possible reason for this low turnout rate is the fact that voter registration in the United States is more difficult than it is in other countries.
Currently, the U.S. government encourages an opt-in system, which calls for states to offer citizens the option to register to vote when they apply for or renew certain documents, such as a driver’s license or state identification card. The onus is on the citizens to either register to vote at that point or to remember to register before the deadline.
Automatic voter registration is seen as an attractive solution to these problems. Contrary to what is currently in place, it would need to function as an opt-out system. Citizens would automatically be registered as eligible voters via their interactions with government agencies, such as when they pay their taxes. Citizens would have to opt out of voting, rather than opt in, which could yield a higher voter turnout.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy institute at the New York University School of Law, has estimated that automatic voter registration would permanently add up to 50 million eligible voters to the list. Currently, 29 states have considered putting automatic voter registration into action. Putting automatic voter registration in effect would be a boon to both the voting system and turnout in the United States.
The debate surrounding automatic voter registration and voting in general can be viewed as a bipartisan issue. Democrats want the process of voting to become easier because they primarily believe that newly registered voters will belong to the young, poor or minority groups, who are usually avid supporters of the party. Republicans want to block ease of voting for the exact same reason, since it would give Democrats an edge.
In recent years, Republicans have tried to tighten voting laws, requiring extra identification at the polls and purging voter rolls. One reason they oppose automatic voter registration is because undocumented immigrants can obtain driving licenses and so could, under the automated system, accidentally become eligible to vote. However, the benefits of automatic voter registration grossly outweigh any detriments, so this should not be an issue.
Regardless of whether employing automatic voter registration will benefit one party over another, it is certain that the United States needs to increase its abysmal voter turnout rate. It is sad that only 58.6 percent of the country voted in the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
This did not happen because U.S. citizens are lazy or are apathetic when it comes to politics. Rather, the low voter turnout rate can be blamed on the fact that U.S. citizens are not automatically registered. It is embarrassing that the United States, the world’s foremost superpower, the model of democracy that other countries look up to when organizing their governments, has just a little more than half of its citizenry directly engaging with the electoral process.
If Congress would devise and enact an opt-out system that is standard in many other countries, the United States would have a much larger population of registered voters, possibly on par with countries like Belgium, Sweden or Turkey. These countries boast high voter registration rates and, in turn, equally high voter turnout rates.
Several things could be done to make voting easier for citizens and increase voting turnout. Election Day should be moved to a weekend so that more people are able to get to a polling site. In addition, voters should be allowed to use an absentee ballot without providing an excuse. This way, the United States would no longer lag behind its counterparts.
To have a working democracy, a government must have an involved citizenry. Therefore, government should make it easy for said citizenry to take part in the election of representative leaders. The opt-in system that the United States currently uses to register voters is an unnecessary barrier to this process and to its citizens. Having an opt-out system would push voters to cast a vote since the struggle to register has been removed. Automatic voter registration should be established instead, for everyone’s benefit.