You can't vote if you aren't registered

Yes, it seems to be the key to boosting turnout ... with safeguards, of course

In Monday’s newsletter I cited a host of academic and policy studies reviewing the relationship between voter ID requirements and turnout. They concluded … nothing conclusive. 

The connections are muddled, at best. A 2020 Cato Institute report focused on comparing turnout in states with lax ID requirements with those having strict ID mandates. It noted,

it is possible that the vast majority of individuals without identification do not vote even in the absence of a strict ID requirement. This could be because they have little interest in voting or because they mistakenly believe that their vote will not be counted if they do not have an ID despite efforts by the states to make it clear that the votes count.

Another complication could be basic human error: election officials who don’t enforce ID requirements consistently or correctly.

Progressive election watchers say the biggest “impediment” to voting may be the most obvious: People can’t vote if they aren’t registered. A New York Times op-ed based on research by Charlotte Hill of and Jacob Grumbach of Princeton University argued young people tend to vote at a lower rate than their more-seasoned counterparts because they’re registered to vote at a lower rate than older folks.

Setting rules for voter registration may become an ideological or partisan battleground.

Hill and Grumbach say increasing the share of young voters would help Democrats win. Their magic bullet for increasing youth turnout: letting voters register at polling places, even on Election Day. 

“We found that letting people register and vote on the same day increases turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds by as much as 10 percentage points — a potential difference of millions of votes,” they wrote. 

Same-day (including Election Day) registration is part of H.R.1/S.1, the federal “For the People Act.” Democrats expect to gain ground if it becomes law. It certainly would make voting easier but not necessarily more secure. The bill passed the U.S. House and is stalled in the Senate. 

It’s unclear what safeguards election officials could put in place under H.R.1 to prevent voter fraud from Election Day registrants. These safeguards — requiring some combination of voter ID, provisional ballots from Election Day registrants, affidavits or sworn statements, other proof of residency, or including criminal penalties for fraudulent voting — are commonplace in the 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) allowing Election Day registration.

North Carolina allows same-day registration for anyone who casts ballots during early voting. Those voting by mail or on Election Day, though (with a few exceptions), must be registered 25 days before an election. Our system appears to be working well with little fraud or irregularities tied to the registration process.

Among the other hot ideas in the federal bill is automatic voter registration. Democrats in the N.C. Senate and House have introduced measures that would expand the federal motor-voter system launched in 1993. Anyone who gets a driver’s license is asked if they also want to register to vote. The new bills would go from opt-in to opt-out: Driver’s license recipients would be registered to vote unless they said no. 

The bills would include automatic registration with interactions people have with most government agencies — the Division of Employment Security, Medicaid or other human services offices, college or university admissions. Anyone who contacts a government agency that requires proof of address to receive services would go on the voter rolls.

Again, with proper safeguards, moving from opt-in to opt-out doesn’t look like a problem. Issues would arise when driver’s license holders move and don’t update their addresses. Anyone doing that now must cast a provisional ballot and provide proof of residence after voting. That requirement should remain.

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More troubling, though, is an Executive Order President Biden issued May 7 enlisting more federal agencies in voter registration activities.

If the agencies did no more than include information on their websites helping people sign up with local election officials, then no harm, no foul. But the order would do much more, diving into dangerous territory. 

It says, 

“The head of each [federal] agency shall evaluate ways in which the agency can, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, promote voter registration and voter participation.  This effort shall include consideration of:”

Ruh roh.

We’re getting perilously close to enacting portions of H.R.1 by executive rather than congressional action, unconstitutionally stepping on state prerogatives. There’s an open debate over how thoroughly Congress can take over state election management, as H.R.1 would do. It should be much clearer, though, that the president can’t do that with his pen and his phone.

Let’s keep an eye on this.


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Meanwhile, let’s celebrate an adult

Steve Winwood turns 73 today. Hard to believe his first hit single with the Spencer Davis Group was recorded when he was 16. (Several years after he sat in with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker when they toured the UK.) Between Spencer Davis, Traffic (which he founded at 19), Blind Faith, and his solo career, he’s squeezed a lot of memorable music in those 73 years. Enjoy.