In recent years, Republicans have been leading a concerted effort to disenfranchise voters and limit democratic rights, which they (rightly) perceive as a threat to their political power. However, a group known as iVote has launched a multi-million dollar effort to protect voters against the tyrannical threat of Republican lawmakers. The group, led by Jeremy Bird, a top aide to Obama’s presidential campaigns, has made it its mission to make voter registration automatic when applying for a driver’s license. In addition, it plans to spend millions on advertising and outreach to spread awareness about voting rights.
In addition to the new efforts of iVote to guarantee automatic registration, Democratic presidential candidates have been calling out the Republicans for trying to squash American democracy. Hillary Clinton has taken a strong stance on the issue, pushing for longer early voting periods and universal voter registration. In June, Clinton said:
“Today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?”
Similarly, in addition to advocating for universal registration, Bernie Sanders is fighting to make Election Day a national holiday. “What democracy is about is all people having the right to participate in the political process,” said Sanders in an interview. “Not making it harder for people to vote. Not suppressing the vote. Not having long lines where people have to wait hours to cast their vote.”
Under current law, applicants at the DMV can optionally choose to register to vote by giving some additional information. The proposed measures would simply change this “opt-in” system to an “opt-out” one, in which applicants are automatically registered to vote by default. Similar “motor-voter” laws have been passed in California and Oregon, but Republican Governor Chris Christie recently vetoed such a law in New Jersey.
Despite this seemingly minor change in the system, advocates say it would make a huge difference to the nation’s electorate. Senior advisor to iVote and former Obama campaign aide Hari Sevugan said:
“With automatic voter registration, we can not only make our electoral system more modern and fair, but bring 51 million American citizens—most of whom are disproportionately poor, young and minority—permanently into the political process… In short, this is a game changer.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court “effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” by allowing states to change their voting laws without advance federal approval. Recently, many states have adopted restrictive voter ID laws that require government-issued photo identification to be shown at the polls. Why do Republicans support such laws? Because they disproportionately affect minority and low-income voters, who tend to support the Democratic Party.
According to a 2012 study, eleven percent of eligible voters lack the necessary form of identification, and “free [photo] IDs are not equally accessible to all voters.” Low-income voters may not have access to a vehicle and would have to travel to obtain the ID; and, many ID-issuing offices have limited business hours: “For example, the office in Sauk City, Wisconsin is open only on the fifth Wednesday of any month.” Voting laws which require citizens to jump through hurdles in order to exercise a fundamental democratic right disenfranchise voters who cannot afford to jump such hurdles because of lack of access, or, if someone is working multiple jobs, lack of time.
Conservatives attempt to conceal this blatant attempt to rewind the civil rights movement by invoking the threat of voter fraud. However, although there is reason to worry about fraud when it comes to Republican election officials, individual voter fraud is a practically non-existent problem. A 2007 analysis by the New York Times found only 120 cases of fraud over five years, many involving mistaken registration forms. According to election law expert Rick Hasen, there are “very few documented cases” of fraud. “When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can’t prevent.”
When someone registers to vote at the DMV, their information is sent to an election official who verifies eligibility before registering that person to vote. It’s inconceivable how changing this system to register applicants by default could ever lead to fraud.
Besides oppressive voter ID laws, long lines at the polls have a disproportionate effect on minority communities. A 2012 study found that non-white voters face longer waiting times than white voters. Long lines can deter voters, as well as make voting inaccessible to the elderly, or those working multiple jobs.
The Republicans will continue to use their delusional fear of immigrants as a political weapon to promote their anti-democratic agenda. The attempt to prevent citizens from voting can only make sense to a party that knows that public opinion is turning against it. iVote and other Democratic leaders must continue the fight for democracy by resisting this agenda.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.