WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation that would automatically register voters who transmit information to state and federal agencies, potentially adding 50 million new voters around the country.
In introducing the legislation on the House Floor, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) discussed Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down certain aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and eliminated the need for nine states to seek federal approval for altering voting laws.
Central to the decision was the debate over racial discrimination through polling laws. Controversial voting laws in Texas and South Carolina went into effect almost immediately after the decision, and Republicans have pointed to the high court’s 5-4 vote as evidence that the Voting Rights Act remains as strong protection for democratic voting processes. Leahy said in the coming weeks he also plans to reintroduce legislation that would restore the original scope of the Voting Rights Act.
“The right to vote should not be a partisan issue,” Leahy said on the Senate floor. “It is a right that forms the basis of our democracy, and it is incumbent on all Americans – Democratic and Republican – to ensure that no American’s right to vote is infringed. Modernizing our voter registration system is one significant step forward.”
According to Wednesday’s announcement, the Automatic Voter Registration Act will automatically register eligible voters “when they interact with certain state and federal agencies.” Citizens will have the option to decline the automatic registration, and they can also register online, “streamlining” the process, according to the announcement.
Though 2016 marked the first presidential election without the full scope of the Voting Rights Act, left-wing group TargetSmart reported just before November that 200 million Americans had registered to vote, passing the milestone for the first time in U.S. history.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have already approved automatic voter registration policies. According to Leahy, AVR policies have resulted in tens of thousands of additional registered voters in Vermont, where about 440,000 people are registered. In addition to Vermont, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Oregon and West Virginia have all enacted AVR policies.
“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, and we should be doing all we can to strengthen this right,” co-sponsor Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. “Minnesota has one of the highest statewide voter turnout rates in the country, and our new effort will help ensure that Americans in all our states have their voices heard.”
Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also signed onto the bill.
“Automatic voter registration will allow more Americans to exercise their constitutional right to vote and participate in the political process,” Durbin said. “Government impacts the lives of every person in our country, and every American eligible to vote should have a say in its direction.”
According to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which hosted an event on the bill’s introduction, young people have disproportionately been using AVR systems to register to vote. About percent of the 18-24 age group in America is registered to vote, Lloyd Leonard, senior director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters, said during an event at the Brennan Center for Justice in Washington on Wednesday, noting that about 70 percent of the general population is registered to vote.
“That’s a really big gap that we need to start closing,” he said.