Enacting automatic voter registration would exacerbate the potential for fraud and ineligible voting while infringing on the rights of those who don’t wish to participate. @DanODonnellShow has more... #wiright #wipolitics Click To Tweet
Dan O’Donnell outlines the case against automatic voter registration in Wisconsin
May 22, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
On its face, automatic voter registration seems like a difficult proposal to reject. After all, who doesn’t want to make it easier to vote? Who doesn’t want as many people as possible voting?
“I can’t think of anything that is more bipartisan than getting people to vote,” Wisconsin Governor Evers said during a news conference Monday, all but daring legislative Republicans to oppose the bill.
Its author, Democratic Representative David Crowley, was even more direct.
“This is the first time not only that we have a Democratic governor in the past decade, but we are actually looking at putting up bills that encourage more people to vote,” he said. “We know that greater participation will make our government more responsible and more representative of the people who are electing folks.”
His inference is clear: Those who don’t back automatic voter registration don’t want more people voting and don’t want government that is either representative or responsible. This, Crowley, rather obviously implies, is a form of voter suppression (if not outright disenfranchisement), which is, in turn, an affront to American democracy itself.
It is, of course, nothing of the sort. In fact, the only thing at odds with representative democracy and constitutional governance is automatic voter registration itself.
Under Crowley’s bill, Wisconsin residents would be automatically registered to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses at their local Department of Motor Vehicles branch. Unlike the National Voter Registration Act of 1993—also known as the “Motor Voter” law—Wisconsinites would have to opt out of being registered to vote rather than opting in.
This presents a significant First Amendment concern, as the act of refusing to take part in the electoral process can be just as much of a political statement as voting. So too is refusing to register altogether.
While the opt-out option provides Crowley’s proposal with some constitutional cover, the underlying premise of mandatory voter registration runs counter to well-settled political speech protections.
In its analysis of the 2016 presidential election, the Census Bureau found that there were 56.9 million nonvoters. Of those, 32.6 million were not registered to vote. When asked why they didn’t register, a full 41.7 percent said they were either “not interested in the election” or “not involved in politics.”
Similarly, of the 18.9 million nonvoters who were registered but did not vote, 24.7 percent said they “did not like [the] candidates or campaign issues” while an additional 15.4 percent said they were simply “not interested.”
For these people, the decision to not vote or not register to vote may thus be reasonably interpreted to be a political statement. Yes, even a statement expressing disinterest in politics is a statement about politics and is protected political speech.
Automatic voter registration throws up a barrier to the expression of such speech by making participation in politics the default position.
It is also, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Monday, a “solution in search of a problem.”
Nationally, just 2.9 percent of people who were not registered to vote told the Census Bureau that they “did not know where or how to register.” This answer was remarkably consistent among all races, as 2.7 percent of whites, 3.1 percent of blacks, 4.0 percent of Asians, and 4.1 percent of Hispanics listed it as the reason they did not register.
Between three and four times as many said they didn’t register because they just didn’t care.
For those who do, registering to vote in Wisconsin is already remarkably easy. Although exempt from the federal Motor Voter Law, the state allows for same-day voter registration. Anyone, then, who wants to register to vote has until the day of the election to do so. A Wisconsinite who wants to make a statement of dissatisfaction with the political process by not registering does not have to jump through an additional hoop on a DMV form to make that statement.
Since there is such a sizable population of people either disdainful of or disinterested in the political process, automatic voter registration raises the possibility that their information will be used to commit voter fraud.
If, for instance, a person never votes and had never before been registered to vote, adding her to the voter rolls automatically presents a tantalizing target for fraudsters. Voter registration lists are publicly available, so one would just need to find her name, request and intercept an absentee ballot, fill it out, and return it. She would be none the wiser.
Even more troubling is the potential for ineligible voters to request and cast ballots. After California implemented automatic voter registration in April of 2018, roughly 1,500 people (including noncitizens) were erroneously registered.
As The Daily Signal reported, “this error only came to light when a Canadian citizen with a green card reported to the Los Angeles Times that he had received a voter registration card after a visit to the DMV to update his driver’s license.”
The potential for ineligible or fraudulent votes is neither limited to other states nor merely hypothetical, either.
In 2004, a Milwaukee Police Department vote fraud task force recommended criminal charges against at least 16 people working with John Kerry’s presidential campaign or affiliated groups for defrauding same-day registration in an “illegal, organized attempt to influence the outcome of the election in the state of Wisconsin.”
In part because of this apparently widespread fraud, the task force found that “between 4,600 and 5,300 more votes were counted in Milwaukee than the number of voters recorded as having cast ballots.”
Kerry won Wisconsin by fewer than 12,000 votes.
Was fraud a big reason? Milwaukee seemingly didn’t want to find out, as the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute and the Police Department disbanded the task force ahead of the 2008 presidential election.
In 2020, with Wisconsin perhaps the key swing state—decided three years ago by fewer than 23,000 votes—enacting automatic voter registration would exacerbate the potential for fraud and ineligible voting while simultaneously infringing on the rights of those who don’t wish to participate.
Making voter registration essentially mandatory, therefore, isn’t just unnecessary; it’s also a potentially unconstitutional infringement on political speech. Just as one cannot be forced to adopt a particular political position, one cannot be forced to participate in the political process.
How ironic, then, that on this issue at least, Governor Evers and his Democratic allies aren’t particularly pro-choice.