Will Automatic Voter Registration Fix our Democracy’s Woes?

By July 31, 2017Blog

On June 29th, 2017, the Illinois General Assembly achieved a modern political miracle: they sent SB 1933 to the Governor after reaching a unanimous consensus in both houses of the legislature. Though the universal approval of anything at any level of government is usually reserved for feel-good publicity stunts that do very little, in this case the bill actually has some teeth. Voter registration in Illinois will essentially be automatic if the bill is signed into law.

To an extent, it’s easy to see why this was a bipartisan; SB 1933 has a lot to offer both of parties. For Democrats, it means getting some of the state’s estimated 2 million eligible but unregistered voters onto the rolls, something that can only benefit them in the decidedly blue-leaning state. For Republicans, the bill means increased protections against voter fraud. By tying the registration process into the federal Real ID system, it greatly reduces the chance of non-citizens registering to vote or actually voting, intentionally or otherwise.

But will SB 1933 drastically alter voter behavior? Will eliminating another bureaucratic barrier to voting finally impel more of those 2 million voters to finally partake that most sacred of political traditions? Sure, it’s possible…but we’re skeptical.

To see evidence of why the end results of SB 1933 might be considerably more lackluster than advocates would hope for, one need not look any further than the 2016 presidential election. Last October, Politico heralded the new high watermark of 200 million registered American voters, nearly 50 million more than there were in 2008. Come November 8th, though, only 138 million actually came out to vote. While still an estimate, there were at most 10 million more voters than in 2008. So where did the other 40 million newly registered voters go?

The simple answer is, most of them probably just didn’t find it was worth the effort. Either they didn’t like the candidates, or they couldn’t get the time off work, or they simply didn’t think their vote would matter. And that gets down to the crux of the issue: voter participation, or lack thereof, is not an issue that can be solved with a single piece of legislation or some new technology. 

That doesn’t mean SB 1933 is pointless. Anything that increases access to democracy is almost certainly a good thing, and, at the very least, it means some of Illinois’ voting systems would get a technological overhaul. Given the fact that 90,000 Illinois voters’ records were compromised last election, they’re probably about due for an update. Overall, it is an interesting proposition, and we’d be happy to be proven wrong on its merits.

That is, of course, assuming they can find the budget to implement it. Looking at the status of the state’s finances, that might be easier said than done. But hey, one thing at a time, Illinois. One thing at a time. 

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