An historic victory for the right to vote

    If only Curtis Gans had lived a little longer, he would’ve cheered the enactment of an historic state law which – for the first time in America – automatically puts people on the voting rolls.

    You’ve probably never heard of Gans; for four decades, he was the nation’s most prominent expert on voter turnout (or lack thereof). As founder of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate, he was an indispensible go-to source for political writers (myself included). He also earned many nicknames over the years – “Chicken Little,” “Cassandra,” “Mr. Gloom” – because of his unrelenting despair. He hated the fact that roughly half the eligible electorate routinely stays home.

    Gans knew that millions of Americans had simply tuned out;  as he once told me, “The public’s attitude is all driven by negativity. We have consultant-driven campaigns with highly programmed candidates; we have candidates who can’t really do anything once in office, because, with all the emphasis on the budget deficit, there’s no money to pay for anything.”

    But Gans also believed that a lot more people would vote if America enacted a policy that is common in other western nations: automatic registration. The governments in Canada, Australia, and Sweden, among many others, take the lead in putting voters on the rolls. Gans used to say, “We’re one of the few democracies that puts the entire burden for registering on the citizen, and not on the state.”

    Gans died on Sunday. On Monday, Oregon became the first state that automatically registers people to vote. He would’ve loved that.

    When Oregon’s governor signed the bill, she reversed the American paradigm. Whereas, in 49 states, the burden of registering is on the citizen, in Oregon the burden is now on the government to register the citizen. Anyone who has dealt with the motor vehicle agency since 2013 will be automatically enrolled by the secretary of state’s office, and will be sent a ballot by mail in advance of the next election. The idea is to make the voting process more seamless and accessible.

    Naturally, the Oregon measure got zero support from Republicans. Their philosophy, of course, is that voting is not a right; in their view, voting is a privilege you can exercise once you’ve managed to surmount the obstacles that Republicans have put in your way (like photo ID laws). The GOP line in Oregon was that the new law would cause widespread voter fraud (their favorite fraudulent issue), and that automatic registration equals government coercion – forcing people to vote. As one state lawmaker argued, “Government should nudge people to do the right thing, but not force people.”

    But the Oregon law doesn’t “force” people to vote. An automatically registered voter gets three weeks to decide whether to stay enrolled. In other words, it’s OK to opt out. And all new voters are automatically registered as independents, unless they decide to choose a party affiliation.  Oregon is expected to add 300,000 people to the rolls – an increase of roughly 15 percent.

    Can such a law be replicated in states less blue than Oregon? Not likely, given the Republican dominance in most legislatures. The GOP sees an expanded electorate as its enemy, which is why, especially since 2011, it has crafted so many state laws that make registering and voting more inconvenient. Restricting the right to vote is not a particularly inspiring strategy, but it’s one way to win elections.

    Actually, Curtis Gans felt that the GOP sold itself short. In his view, the GOP was wrong to fear high-turnout elections. Yes, Barack Obama won in ’08 on the strength of the highest turnout in decades. But, as Gans pointed out in ’09 congressional testimony, “Three of the highest turnout presidential elections in the last 75 years occurred in 1952, 1968 and 2004, when the GOP won. Two of the lowest turnout elections during the same period were 1948 and 1996, when the Democrats won.”

    His bottom line: “The goal of any democratic electoral system is to make possible the maximum voting participation of the citizenry” – and that goal should trump all partisan calculations. Let that be his legacy.


    Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have unveiled their new federal budget plan. Welcome to the latest episode of House of Clowns.

    They envision cutting $5 trillion over next 10 years – with roughly two-thirds of the cuts extracted from programs designed to help low- and modest-income people. Millions of children and elderly would be hurt by Medicaid cuts (because Medicaid, as a federal program, would be abolished). Obamacare would be repealed (natch), thus stripping health coverage from 16.4 million people. War spending would rise by $40 billion (via off-the-books “emergency” funding). And nobody in the upper brackets will pay an extra cent in taxes, because their longstanding loopholes won’t be touched.

    Rod Woodall, a Republican on the House Budget Committee, said yesterday, “A budget is a moral document. It talks about where your values are.” He sure got that right.

     Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolmand1, and on Facebook.

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