After the “shellacking” the Democrats received on Tuesday they will most certainly have to rethink their legislative priorities. With Joe Barton, the man who famously apologized to BP after the oil spill, set to be the head of the House Energy Committee, the Democrats will probably have to alter their expectations on cap-and-trade and environmental regulations. Passing Wall Street and immigration reform, and ending the Bush tax cuts with this new Republican-majority house will make getting teeth pulled seem pleasant by comparison.
Job creation should be priority number one for the president, but there is another issue that Democrats should champion: nationwide automatic voter registration.
Since 1996, three years after President Clinton passed the Motor Voter Act, only about 61% of citizens eighteen and older actually got out to vote during presidential elections, according to the US Census Bureau. Even in the historic 2008 election, less than 64% of eligible voters cast a ballot. However, an average of 86.5% of those who were already registered made their way to the polls during those four elections.
The same trend holds true during midterm elections. Between 1994 and 2006, a dismal 47% of eligible voters actually voted, but a markedly better (although still upsettingly low) 70% of those already registered cast a vote.
So the key, it seems, is just getting people registered to vote in the first place. Unfortunately, this process is much harder than it should be, especially for college students and young adults. Under current laws, people must re-register to vote every time they change their address, which naturally helps disenfranchise college students, who often live at different addresses during each of their four years at school. To combat this, thousands of student-volunteers at campuses across the country have to scamper around trying to register everyone they see, often with less than a month to do so.
Here at the University of Wisconsin, campus organizers from the non-partisan WISPIRG, the Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Group, along with dozens of student volunteers and interns like me, registered over 2,600 students by going door to door, tabling, and holding get out the vote events.
Going door to door in my over 1,000-person residence hall, I found that voter apathy was not the driving cause behind the high number of students who weren’t registered. Most did not know how or where to register before I showed up at their door, and almost everybody who was registered back at their home address had no idea that they had to re-register every time they move. The latter issue is not as big here in Wisconsin, where we have same-day voter registration, but in the 40 other states without it, many voters are disenfranchised. The overwhelming minority–by my estimate, less than a fifth of students who were not registered–told me that they did not care about politics or voting, and that they didn’t want to register.
As much as we try every election season, a few thousand students running around like crazy people in the month before the election isn’t going to be enough to really fix the problem. We need elected representatives to dedicate themselves to crafting legislation aimed at helping every American vote. For the Democrats, this is their time to seize this opportunity.
Politically, it won’t be easy. Republicans, who try to obstruct everything anyway, will complain about voter fraud, federal government overreach, the cost of reforming the system, and they’ll surely find a way to throw something about “the Founders” in their argument as well. To combat this, Congressional Democrats should just do what Republicans do. As much as I hate to say this, they should just throw a name on the bill like “The Expanding Democracy in America Act,” or the “Freedom to Vote Act,” say that they are encouraging everyone to exercise a sacred constitutional right, and question the commitment to democracy and “freedom” of those Republicans who don’t want to make it easier for every American to vote.
Will this alone do the trick? Probably not, and a compromise would likely have to be reached. But it is a step in the right direction, and an issue Democrats can very easily use to their advantage politically. Even if the compromise was just an expansion of same-day registration, the non-partisan Demos think tank reports that in 2008, states with same-day registration had a voter turnout rate of 69% compared to 62% in all other states. That would be a compromise I’d gladly sign up for.