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Opinion: Democrats Can’t Drop the Ball on Automatic Voter Registration

Image: US-VOTE-ELECTION
File photo of voting booths in Florida on November 8, 2016. GREGG NEWTON / AFP - Getty Images

If there is one priority that Democrats need to own is to expand access to the voting booth for Latinos and other voters. Automatic voter registration should be a priority for all Democratic lawmakers.

So it's a shame that in New Mexico two Democrats didn't vote for a bill that would have gotten closer to automatic voter registration. Instead, they voted for a second bill that is less "automatic," thus diluting the purpose — making voting easier for Latinos and other voter groups.

The lawmakers, State Reps. Daymon Ely and Debbie Rodella first voted against a bill that contained both opt-in and opt-out provisions.

In short, an “opt-in” provision means that a person filling out an online form for a driver’s license would also be presented with a box that asks them if they also want to register to vote. The box, however, would not be automatically ticked, meaning the person would need to affirmatively tick the box to register.

An “opt-out” provision is much more effective; it would present the applicant with a box that is already ticked and the registrant would need to affirmatively untick the box if they did not desire to register to vote. The difference is subtle but critically important.

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Rep. Ely said in a Facebook post that the initial bill was confusing and wouldn't have passed anyway.

More troubling is Rep. Rodella, who questioned the need for this anyway. "People should choose for themselves if they want to vote or not," she said.

Here's why Rep. Rodella is wrong.

According to a recent study by Wendy Weiser, automatic registration helps millions of Americans who change residences, without it many fall off the voter rolls.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, one in four eligible citizens is not registered to vote, one in eight voter registrations in the United States is invalid or significantly inaccurate, and one in four voters wrongly believes their voter registration is automatically updated when they change their address with the Postal Service. This is shameful.

When the amended bill was presented again, it was presented with the opt-in provision and without the opt-out provision. In other words, it’s not really automatic voter registration. The two Democratic lawmakers voted for this bill instead.

Expanding access to the democratic process is an imperative that Democrats at least pretend to want, but the Republican Party has been busy pushing for legislation to stymie this right across the country. From news laws that punish the right to assemble to a constant push for voter identification laws which research has shown to disproportionately impact low-resource citizens, opening the franchise to greater participation is the last line of defense for a democratic society that values fairness.

The democratic process requires more than just citizen participation, but a government that accepts its share of the responsibility over voter participation. The academic research on this is clear; political participation is not only about citizens going to politics, but about politics going to its citizens.

Automatic voter registration is the law in other democratic countries, such as Australia, Peru, Germany, and others. The research has also shown that automatic voter registration helps boost voter participation.

This is even more important for Latinos. A Pew Research study concluded that Latinos are underrepresented in the electorate, compared with their share of eligible voters. According to their studies, less than half of all Latinos say they are “absolutely certain” they are registered to vote. That compares with 69 percent of blacks and 80 percent of whites. New Mexico is almost 50 percent Hispanic, making it the highest-ranking state in the country as a percentage of Hispanics.

Much of the confrontation in democratic governments has been over access to the political process. Historically, voter registration laws have been a hurdle to participation for minorities and politically disaffected groups. Whether it is voter id laws, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, or disenfranchising citizens with a criminal background, registration laws have been precision tool to discriminate against the powerless behind a disingenuous veil of concern over securing our democracy.

The discussion over how the Democrats recover from their stunning loss to Donald Trump has generally focused on what Democrats can do to counter the Republican Party, whether by appealing to working-class white voters or by doubling down with progressive values that may hinder their outreach to rural towns that catapulted the President to an electoral college victory.

But also of immediate concern for Democrats is holding their own representatives accountable for violating the values and interests of their own party at the local level. And pushing for easier access to the voting booth and vigorously supporting automatic voter registration is a must for the party not only because Democrats need Latino voters, but because it is the right thing to do.

If Democrats expect to have a chance at winning back Congress it must start with local officials getting the message that they have to fight for the democratic process. The answer is supporting and better yet, introducing bills to make voting easier, including automatic voter registration. This is their job.

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