JUDGES IN Virginia and Florida ordered officials to extend the time for people to register to vote because of unforeseen events. In Florida, it was a major hurricane that for days upended people’s lives; in Virginia, it was a crash of the state elections website. The decisions were eminently sensible and must be commended. But they also should raise the question of why in this day and age, this country largely remains wedded to an archaic system of voter registration that discourages — even prevents — people from voting.
“No right is more precious than having a voice in our democracy,” wrote Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in ordering a six-day extension of voter registration in the wake of the massive disruption caused by Hurricane Matthew. “Hopefully, it is not lost on anyone that the right to have a voice is why this great country exists in the first place,” he said in a ruling that should shame Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). Mr. Scott had the authority to extend registration but flatly refused, saying that Floridians had had plenty of time and shouldn’t have waited until the last minute. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), in refreshing contrast, lacked the authority to extend the registration period but supported the lawsuit seeking more time.
Mr. Scott’s stance, as Judge Walker so aptly put it, was so much “poppycock” and it’s pretty clear that he, like many of his fellow Republicans, sees access to voting through a partisan lens. Hence the proliferation of new laws — from strict photo ID requirements to early voting limits to registration restrictions — adopted under the guise of combating voter fraud, but actually aimed at suppressing the vote from minorities and other constituencies seen as voting Democratic.
The United States lags behind its international peers in voter participation. Turnout in the 2012 presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center, was only 53.6 percent. So the priority of states should be to encourage voting by removing unnecessary obstacles. Most important is streamlining the voter registration system. Five states have moved to an automatic system that registers people unless they opt out when they get driver’s licenses or interact with another government database. A number of other states and the District are considering legislation to implement automatic registration; federal legislation has been introduced in Congress and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has spoken out forcefully in favor of it. Let’s hope that means there is enough momentum so that the next time a presidential election rolls around, all eligible voters will be registered and able to participate in American democracy.