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Another Voter Suppression Target: Same Day Registration

Steven Carbó

Each major election, thousands of volunteers fan out in communities all across the nation to register their neighbors to vote. You may see some of them in your travels today, National Voter Registration Day. Community voter registration drives like these provide an essential service, adding many thousands of unregistered citizens to the voter rolls.

But in states like Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, voter participation is less dependent upon retail efforts of this sort. That’s because these states offer Same Day Registration. Eligible citizens can show up at the polls or elections offices on Election Day or during the early voting period, register to vote, and cast a ballot. . . easy as that.

What a tremendous savings of time and effort! And the results are phenomenal. States with Same Day Registration regularly lead the nation in voter participation. And they achieve results like those at little to no additional cost or administrative burden, while safeguarding against voter fraud.

So what’s not to love about Same Day Registration?

Voters in Maine and Minnesota have been scratching their heads over that question this year and last. Despite the long-standing and successful use of Same Day Registration in those states, politicians there have been trying to undermine or repeal SDR. One can only guess that they see political gain in making it harder for some eligible citizens to vote. Experts cite students, voters of color, and newly naturalized citizens among those who particularly benefit from the introduction of Same Day Registration.

Maine was the first state to adopt Same Day Registration, enacting the reform in 1973. It’s been a leader in voter turnout ever since, placing fifth in the 2008 presidential election and number three in 2004. Yet politicians there voted to repeal SDR in 2011. Their stated goal was to stop voter fraud and lighten the workload of local elections officials, claims that belied the truth (just one incidence of double-voting in almost 40 years) and the public statements of elections clerks. According to Bangor City Clerk Patti DuBois:

Same-day registration wasn't the issue for us. Ultimately, we want to facilitate voting -- and it does that.

The politicians more likely aim was to manipulate the system, making it harder for students and others who might not vote to reelect them. Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers (a supporter of SDR repeal) certainly had it in for students last year when he sent 206 University of Maine students with out-of-state home addresses an intimidating letter questioning their ability to vote from their campuses addresses. He strongly suggested that they cancel their Maine voter registrations, enclosing a cancellation form. Summers must have known that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled decades ago that students could choose to vote from their campus homes.

The attempt to repeal Same Day Registration ultimately failed in Maine. Thanks to a so-called “People’s Veto,” whereby Mainers can override legislation with which they don’t agree, a ballot initiative to restore SDR passed by an almost two-to-one margin in November 2011.

A similar scenario is now playing out in Minnesota. That state began offering Same Day Registration in 1974, and has consistently used it to lead the nation in voter turnout. Minnesota ranked first in the vote in the last two presidential elections, with 78 percent of eligible citizens casting a ballot in both races. One element of a voter ID ballot question to be put before the voters this November could unravel Same Day Registration (and upend mail-in and absentee voting). It reads

All voters, including those not voting in person, must be subject to substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or counted.

Under the current system in Minnesota, persons registering to vote on Election Day substantiate their identity and residence at the polls, and vote a ballot. Any necessary verification occurs after Election Day. Requiring that identity and eligibility be verified before a ballot is distributed is raising alarms among state voter groups. Adoption of the ballot initiative could undermine Same Day Registration in Minnesota, breaking the state’s amazing track record on voter participation. According to Kathy Bonnifield at Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota:

For almost 40 years, Minnesota has had Election Day registration. To change or eliminate this important component of our democracy will impact at least one voter in over 90 percent of our precincts. Specifically, it will make voting more difficult for college students as well as renters.

Voting is the central pillar of our democracy, the most fundamental right and responsibility of each citizen. Voter registration is the means through which Americans can fulfill that duty. The volunteers who are staffing today’s voter registration drives are performing an essential service. But as shown by the nine states that will offer Same Day Registration this November, the two-step, registration-then-voting process is an inefficient, antiquated relic that predates modern technology and the computer.

States can and should instead allow Americans to both register and vote on Election Day, and reap the benefits of increased voter participation. Connecticut enacted Same Day Registration this past June and just yesterday Governor Jerry Brown’s signed SDR legisaltion into law in California. All that stands in the way in other states is the obstruction of self-interested politicians who fear for their jobs if the opportunity to vote was extended to all eligible citizens.