Ellen Kurz is founder and president of iVote, a voting rights advocacy group that campaigns to elect Democratic secretaries of state.
This is absurd and antiquated — and it specifically penalizes young people, who are used to doing everything online with an instant click of a button. But it’s more than that: Voter registration itself is a voter-suppression tool.
Just consider what is happening in Georgia, where state election officials — led by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also the Republican candidate for a close governor’s race — purged hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls. And they have put on hold more than 53,000 applications from those who tried re-registering to vote in November — most of whom are black.
Our democracy holds sacred the value that every person has an equal voice in elections. To preserve that principle, we must stop such voter suppression. The best way to do this is to eliminate voter registration altogether.
The burden should be on the government — not individuals — to ensure the right to vote. And this wouldn’t be too difficult: Our government already records every American in various ways. Why can’t voting be automatic with Selective Service registration and expanded to include women? Or with a Social Security number? In other democracies such as Canada, Sweden and Argentina, governments automatically compile rolls using information from other federal agencies. These efforts can serve as a model for the United States to pursue.
A much-discussed cover of this month’s Atlantic asks “Is Democracy Dying?” The answer is yes. The first line in the obituary of American democracy will point to GOP voter suppression as its killer. Recognizing unfavorable demographic trends, Republican lawmakers have made it harder for communities that are unlikely to vote for them to vote at all.
Republican secretaries of state across the country, led by Kansas’s Kris Kobach, have used voter purges to kick thousands of voters off their rolls, disproportionally affecting people of color. Their reasoning? These voters didn’t vote in the two prior elections.
Indiana Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson was so aggressive in her purge that some count the total number of people expunged from the rolls since the election in 2016 as half a million. Making matters worse, voters were not even given notice that they were removed from the list.
In Georgia, voting-rights advocates are running public awareness campaigns for people to check their registration status. These efforts are worthy of applause, but they represent yet another step to an already cumbersome process: checking your registration and re-registering.
None of this is an accident, and the problem is pervasive. According to a report by the Brennan Center, 16 million eligible voters were purged from the registration rolls from 2014 to 2016. A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute found black and Hispanic respondents were at least twice as likely to have experienced barriers to voting as white respondents.
Voting rights have a long and sordid history in our country. There have always been people who try to maintain political and economic power by keeping others from voting — landowners over renters, men over women and whites over black. As a result, a fraction of Americans has been more powerful in deciding who our lawmakers are and what laws govern us.
Registration rolls are the front lines for partisan political attacks and for cyberattacks from foreign countries. Cybersecurity experts know our rolling, ever-changing registration lists are the most vulnerable part of our election system and are not yet safe from foreign interference. They’re not even confident about our ability to detect hacking when it happens.
If we end voter registration and allow citizens to vote automatically once they turn 18, we eliminate the endless opportunities to use registration as a place to suppress or hack the vote. No registration means no absurd deadlines, no purges and no tampering.
We have the ability to make participation greater and democracy stronger and more representative of the people by abolishing our current system altogether. Let’s make it happen.