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Op-ed: Automatic voter registration would boost Utah democracy

Published September 25, 2016 5:43 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The "right to vote" is mentioned five times in the Constitution — more than the right to free speech, the right to bear arms or the right to privacy (which most of us believe is a fundamental right but is not even mentioned in the Constitution). It is then shocking to learn that many do not consider voting to be a "right" and that millions of people every year are denied this basic democratic function.

The Constitution protects a citizen's right to vote regardless of race, gender and age, while prohibiting states from making it more difficult to vote through devices such as poll taxes. Despite these protections, there is no Constitutional provision that guarantees every United States citizen the right to vote. As a consequence, states have, for years, used a variety of "creative" means to limit some citizens' ability to vote.

For example, after the tragic gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013, many states have made it harder for people to vote by restricting early voting (popular among voters working 9 to 5 jobs) and requiring state-issued forms of voter identification (which many poor and ethnic minority voters are less likely to have). Politicians claim these measures prevent fraud, but there is no evidence to support this view. Quite simply, voter fraud is as rare as unicorns. What evidence does show is that such restrictions reduce the electoral representation of ethnic minorities, students and the elderly.



Unlike many other states, we are fortunate to live in a state that diligently protects its citizens' right to vote and works to increase the accessibility of voting. Utah was among the first states to allow women to vote, even before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Unlike many other states, Utah does not permanently deny voting to individuals who have been convicted of felonies — felons are prohibited from voting while in prison, but regain their right to vote after serving their time. Utah is also moving county-by-county toward a universal system of elections by mail, making it easier and more convenient to vote for most, but not all, populations.

But Utah cannot rest on its laurels. Although we deserve high marks for protecting voting rights, there is more to be done to ensure that every Utahn has a voice in our democracy. One possible improvement: automatic voter registration.

Already adopted in Oregon and California, automatic voter registration is a process by which information provided when people obtain or renew their driver's license or state I.D. card is sent to election officials to register that person to vote by default. The information that individuals provide when they register to drive is exactly the same as the information that is requested when they register to vote. Why ask individuals to fill out these forms twice, when once is enough? These systems give voters ways to opt-out of registration or to declare party affiliation if they so choose. Procedures and firewalls are put in place that prevent the registration of those who are ineligible to vote.

Anything that we can do to make it easier for Utahns to register will increase the number of Utahns who can make their voices heard during each election. This is critically important, especially for our youngest citizens. In Utah, over half of 18-29 year-olds are not registered to vote, and voter turnout in this age group was an abysmal 8 percent in 2014. Automatic registration can help to turn the tide, making voter registration the norm rather than the exception and ensuring that our democracy truly represents all citizens.

Alexander Hamilton said "voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law." We wholeheartedly agree. The question is whether Utah is willing to fight to uphold this critical American principle.

Chase Thomas is policy and advocacy counsel for Alliance for a Better Utah. Judi Hilman is executive director of Voterise.

 

 

 

 

 

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