Automatic voter registration is great news, but should not be exclusive

In a major speech on voting rights this month at Texas Southern University, Hillary Clinton presented her vision for an improved, modernized voting system. Days later, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush announced his intention to run, although he has yet to address access to voting – an issue that’s hard to ignore in his home state of Florida, which is infamous for hanging chads, discriminatory voter roll purges, and unacceptably long lines. 

The vision articulated by Clinton includes a national standard of at least 20 days of early voting, a restored and strengthened Voting Rights Act, and “universal, automatic registration” for all American citizens upon turning 18. As an example of this final measure, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination cited a law that passed earlier this year in Oregon – a law that, while designed to make the voter registration process easier for all voters, poses potential concerns and racial implications.   

Hailed as the nation’s first automatic voter registration law, Oregon’s measure makes it so that anyone over 18 who has interacted with the DMV since 2013 will be automatically registered to vote. Implementation involves the DMV sharing its database with the secretary of State to get people on the voter rolls. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) introduced similar legislation at the federal level this month, and Maine introduced a state bill in April, also with good intentions of putting the burden of registration on the state instead of individual voters. While the concept is a positive step forward, unfortunately, unless it is expanded to include more vulnerable voters, its execution could amount to two steps back. 

Under the model passed in Oregon and now being considered in Congress and other states, the process is limited to only the DMV database. This sole reliance on the DMV leaves behind many eligible voters who do not have a driver’s license or state photo ID. As extensive national data shows us, these voters are disproportionately people of color. In Wisconsin and Texas, for example, federal trials have shown that registered voters without state photo IDs are disproportionately black and latino. More than 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin and 600,000 in Texas do not have state photo IDs, a staggering portion of the potential electorate.  Furthermore, voters with disabilities, the elderly, low-income and young voters all have disproportionately less access to these particular forms of ID. 

With no mechanism for people without DMV identification to participate in the automatic registration process that everyone else benefits from, the proposed model excludes about 10 percent of eligible voters. And in making voting easier for some, while omitting the very populations most in need of greater access, this model also stands to potentially whitewash the voter rolls.  

To avoid this, lawmakers seeking automatic voter registration mechanisms should expand such programs to include all eligible voters. Without attention to these details, the dangerous trend of limiting automatic voter registration to those with drivers’ licenses poses the risk of becoming “the new normal.” To be truly inclusive and help all voters get registered automatically, data from multiple agencies must be used. This is what all presidential candidates should aspire to. 

The good news is that more inclusive models are in the works that would remedy these problems. California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla is considering an automatic voter registration proposal that would use databases from other agencies in the state, including food stamps, disability benefits and Medicaid – a process that could potentially register around 7 million people. Similarly, Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a bill that would automatically register anyone who applies to get a driver’s license, benefits, or a birth certificate, or who enters a state-run college or university. With various databases being used, in order to reach as many eligible citizens as possible, voters would have opportunity that is free, fair and accessible for all. 

In this era of widespread voter suppression schemes that make it harder for people of color to participate, from restrictive photo ID laws to the cutting of early voting periods, it is imperative that well-intentioned lawmakers who want to make voting easier do not unknowingly discriminate. Voting is supposed to be the one time when we are all equal – whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, black, white, latino or Asian. When we vote, we all have the same say. If we are to live up to this value, then we must ensure that all voting measures – allow citizens to participate equally in our democracy.

Kathy Culliton-González is senior attorney and director of Voter Protection for Advancement Project.
This article originally appeared at thehill.com.