The most encouraging option for voting-rights advocates to pursue is automatic voter registration (sometimes known as universal voter registration). Nearly a quarter of eligible voters -- at least 51 million Americans -- are not registered, according to a recent study from the Pew Center on the States. The norm in established democracies around the world is to register all citizens automatically when they reach the age of eligibility. There are no forms to fill out or lines to stand in; eligible voters are simply assigned a unique identifier, like a Social Security number, that follows them for life. When the government takes responsibility for achieving 100 percent registration, there are no partisan battles over who is or is not registered, and registration status is removed from the contested terrain of politics. Conservatives who are genuinely concerned about reducing voter fraud should support universal registration, since the Pew Center study found that it would resolve approximately 24 million inaccurate registrations.
The voting-rights angle here is that the ranks of those 51 million "unregistered eligibles" are filled disproportionately with racial minorities, the poor, and the young. So by enacting automatic voter registration, the country would add far more minority citizens to voter rolls than will ever be disenfranchised by whatever results from Shelby County. If the ruling provides some momentum for such reform efforts, we will have made some lemonade from the lemons.
But naturally the partisans will look at this through a different lens. Since enacting automatic voter registration would enfranchise millions of minority and young voters -- who are strongly inclined to vote Democratic -- Republicans will oppose it. Certainly House Speaker John Boehner is unlikely to let a bill for automatic voter registration get out of any committee.
But the reform actually can be passed on a state-by-state basis through state legislatures. In fact, there are about a dozen states, including California, Massachusetts, Washington, and Illinois, where Democrats have won the trifecta -- they control the governor's seat as well as both houses of the state legislature. In these states, there aren't enough obstructionist Republicans to halt these efforts. When I directed the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, we sponsored a bill in the California legislature to enact automatic voter registration. Not surprisingly, the Republican caucus fiercely opposed it. But even more disappointingly, Democrats -- including the usually progressive secretary of state -- failed to embrace it.
This is tragic, because automatic voter registration is a great tonic to voter-ID laws, which Democrats and civil-rights leaders have fought doggedly. If voter IDs were coupled with a unique identifier for every eligible voter, they could be used to implement automatic voter registration. That would turn voter-ID laws on their head, registering to vote millions of minorities and youth -- far more than the number who are likely to stay home for lack of a voter ID. This idea was endorsed by the 2006 Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and GOP uber-consigliere James Baker III.