The universal voter registration system that Hillary Clinton is calling for is a terrific idea. Free speech and freedom of religion are every American’s right; no paperwork is required to get them.
To be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures or to enjoy a right to a jury trial, there is no need to register with the authorities. The right to vote should be treated the same way.
Like the system recently embraced by Oregon, Clinton’s proposal would automatically register all citizens to vote when they turn 18, unless they opt out. This approach is essentially the same one that many institutions are taking to increase participation in certain programs: replacing “opt-in” mechanisms, which require people to take active steps to participate, with “opt-out,” which makes participation automatic.
The National School Lunch Program made such a switch, for example, during the George W. Bush administration. Congress knew that many parents of poor children, though eligible for free school meals under the program, were not registering their kids.
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So it instituted “direct certification,” which has states and local educational agencies certify eligible children without requiring households to apply. More than 12 million children are now directly certified.
Similarly, many millions of Americans are being automatically enrolled by their employers in retirement and health insurance plans – and, as a result, participation rates have risen dramatically.
The argument for automatic voter registration seems even more compelling. Although in most states it’s usually not hard to register, tens of millions of Americans encounter obstacles or don’t take the trouble; nonregistration rates are especially high among Hispanics, young people and those without a lot of education. Automatic registration would immediately solve that problem.
Nonetheless, the idea does run into some legitimate concerns. Some people think that even though voting is a right, it’s not too much to ask people to take a few steps to demonstrate that they actually want to be voters.
This argument is strengthened by the reality that the right to vote, unlike other constitutional rights, requires a pretty elaborate administrative apparatus, capable of deciding who is eligible to vote – and where.
And that raises fair questions: Would automatic registration enable some people to vote when they don’t really qualify? Might it increase the risk of fraud?
What happens when people move from one state to another? In many states, felons are disenfranchised. How, exactly, would automatic registration handle that? (In 2008, Clinton supported a federal law that would restore voting rights to those not currently incarcerated or not on parole or probation for a felony.)
These questions deserve careful attention, but experience suggests that they can be answered. Automatic voter registration appears to be working well enough in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, and there’s no reason to think that it cannot succeed here.
Cass Sunstein, a Bloomberg View columnist, is director of the Harvard Law School’s program on behavioral economics and public policy.