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Yesterday, Connecticut SoS Denise Merrill announced that she will ask the Legislature to consider and enact a bill making automatic registration available to voters. CTMirror has more:
With about 30 percent of eligible voters unregistered, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is asking the General Assembly to enable people to automatically register as Connecticut voters when they do business with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The concept is being promoted nationally by the Brennan Center for Justice as the next step in a movement to provide the same ease in voter registration that is found in modern commerce – in other words, something that can be done quickly, automatically and, preferably, online.
California and Oregon adopted similar laws last year, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie raised fraud concerns – an issue frequently raised by Republicans – in vetoing a broader voter reform bill whose provisions included automatic registration. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have promoted the concept, Clinton in a campaign speech in which she accused the GOP of voter suppression and Sanders by sponsoring legislation.
Automatic registration legislation is pending this year in more than a dozen states.
Not surprisingly, partisan concerns are going to be a factor, though Merrill and other supporters emphasize the participation benefits:
Merrill, a Democrat, downplayed partisan politics in outlining her proposal Monday in a press conference, saying she saw no political advantage for either party in a system that automatically registers voters at the DMV unless they decide to opt out.
“I think those concerns are misplaced,” she said.
Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said young voters, the unemployed and renters are the least likely to engage in electoral politics. Automatic registration would reduce the number of voters who fall off the voting rolls when they move, she said.
Carol Mulready of the League of Women Voters said her group was confident automatic registration could increase participation without sacrificing accuracy.
The measure could add 400,000 voters to the rolls in Connecticut, Merrill said. The Brennan Center, based at New York University, says a national law could mean as many as 50 million additional voters.
But skeptics aren’t fully convinced:
The ranking Republicans on the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which will review the proposal, reacted skeptically. They noted Connecticut already allows voter registration by mail, through the DMV, online and on election day.
“I’m in favor of us making sure voting is accessible. It currently is,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury. “We have plenty of opportunities for people to register to vote with minimal effort. It’s already there.”
Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Milford, questioned the wisdom of imposing additional responsibility on the DMV, particularly one that would require changes to its computer systems, while the department is struggling with a number of major computer problems.
“We all know the issues there,” Smith said. “Until they are worked out, I wouldn’t want to add anything else.”
TheHour.com had its own story where legislators (even those who support the concept in theory) laid out their concerns – mostly focused on the DMV:
“In principle, it sounds like the appropriate thing to do. In a democratic republic, we should make it easy for the people eligible to vote,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136. “But I think we’re probably going to have to work through concerns.”
Steinberg said some question whether the DMV is up to the task given recent customer experiences such as the wrongful suspension of motor-vehicle registrations.
“You would want to have confidence in DMV’s organizational and administrative abilities before you could make such a transition,” Steinberg said…
State Rep. Gail Lavielle said her concerns have nothing to do with potential voter fraud but rather with entrusting DMV with verification.
“You’re going to put the DMV in charge of determining whether someone is an eligible voter. Is that really the business of the DMV?” said Lavielle, R-143, “I have serious concerns about it.”
One local election official is particularly skeptical about DMV’s ability to shoulder the load:
Karen Doyle Lyons, Norwalk’s Republican registrar of voters, said the DMV first must bring its own house in order before being given such responsibilities.
She referenced a sign posted at DMV offices last fall, telling those who planned to register to vote for the Nov. 3 elections that “Motor Voter Applications cannot be accepted by the DMV and AAA Offices after Saturday, October 3rd.”
“If I had moved to Fairfield in October, I would have been disenfranchised by the DMV,” Doyle Lyons said.
The signs did advise DMV customers to check with their local registrar of voters, or the Secretary of the State’s website, for voter registration information and registration deadlines.
Despite the concerns, it does appear that lawmakers will consider the proposal – and will look at how it’s working in other states:
Merrill’s proposal would need legislative approval to advance. She has submitted draft language to the legislature’s Administration and Elections Committee requesting that a bill be raised, her office said.
Steinberg, a member of the Administration and Elections, said he plans to research such registration systems and in other states and ask questions as Merrill’s proposal comes before the committee.
“When they testify before the committee that’s when we’ll be able to ask those first questions,” he said.
It will be interesting to see if a proposal like this can receive full consideration in an election year, when partisan feelings are incredibly high – but if it does advance it will suggest that automatic registration is not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s definitely a story worth watching.
Stay tuned …