A Grain Of Saul: Why Everyone Should Be Automatically Registered To Vote

Unless, of course, they opt out.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

While some states continue to push voter suppression tactics, Illinois just took a major step towards guaranteeing more Americans their constitutionally protected right to vote.

On Monday, the Illinois House of Representatives voted unanimously — 115 to 0 — in favor of a bill that will implement automatic voter registration (AVR). This bill, which, after a few changes, will be voted on by the Illinois Senate before being sent to the governor, stands in stark contrast to states like Wisconsin, which recently implemented strict voter ID laws that kept an estimated 300,000 voters from participating in the 2016 election. Experts say Wisconsin's law mostly affected minority and elderly voters.

Automatic voter registration, which has also been pursued in Oregon, California, Washington D.C., Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, Alaska, and West Virginia, could be a step towards improving the dismal turnout rates that have plagued the U.S. elections in recent years. In October, I wrote a column advocating for compulsory voting, noting that the United States ranks 31st among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development when it comes to voter turnout. But AVR across the country would be a better solution than mandatory voting.


Voter suppression tactics and low voter turnout are not typically associated with a thriving democracy. Initiatives like automatic voter registration are. And they should be adopted nationwide. 

In Oregon, the first state to completely implement an AVR system, 100,000 new voting participants showed up at the polls and cast a ballot in 2016 of the 225,000 eligible voters who were automatically registered during interactions with the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. For context, President Donald Trump won the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined 80,000 votes, so it's not unreasonable to assume that one more state's adoption of AVR could have swayed the election results.

Residents exercise their right to vote in the 2016 election in Saint Louis, Missouri on Nov. 8. Shutterstock / Gino Santa Maria

How it works is rather simple: when someone eligible to vote in Illinois visits a state agency to complete a common task (for example, going to the DMV to apply for a driver's license), they will be automatically registered to vote — unless they opt out. Unlike the 1993 "Motor Voter" idea, which gave people the opportunity to opt in to registering to vote, this bill will default to registering eligible voters.

All told, the bill is a clear win for voting rights advocates and anyone who wants to see greater participation in America's democracy. Which is why — despite facing a fiercely divided Illinois legislature — the bill didn't see a single "no" vote. 

Most of the objections to the bill fall apart with even the slightest bit of scrutiny.

Previously, a similar bill passed the House and Senate in Illinois before being vetoed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who said the bill would open the door for more voter fraud. But that talking point has become increasingly hollow: not only do experts agree voting fraud is a minor if not inconsequential issue, there is little evidence that this bill would make voter fraud any easier.

Per Gov. Rauner's recommendations, the new bill is expected to include language that insures anyone enrolled via AVR will have their citizenship checked by multiple agencies.

Some have proposed it's "big government" overreach to automatically register Americans to vote. But what's the point of a democratic system of government if Americans don't actively take part in electing that government? And how can you claim it's overreach when nobody is actually forced to vote and when the bill only makes it easier to vote?

Others have claimed it'd be wasteful spending. In Oregon, the initiative is expected to cost the state $750,000 over two years. That's just .00001 percent of the state's $70 billion dollar budget for 2015 to 2017. (For context, Oregon approved $5.3 million in the same state budget to renovate the Medford Armory, which hosts a weekly flea market.)

The truth is, if someone is opposed to a bill that increases the chance an American votes and makes it less cumbersome for Americans to register to vote, there is probably a simple explanation: that person doesn't want people who will vote against them showing up at the polls.

With all the voter suppression we've seen across the country — whether it's strict ID laws in Wisconsin, Kansas and Florida or gerrymandering in North Carolina — it's refreshing to see a group of lawmakers going after a shockingly novel goal: making it easier for Americans to elect their own representatives.

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul

Cover photo via Shutterstock / Darya Andrievskaya


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