Wyman is Washington’s secretary of state and a rare Republican who has joined Democrats in pushing for a new automatic registration law. The proposal she supports passed the state House with some bipartisan support, but it is likely to get bottled up in the Republican-controlled Senate. “There are very, very long odds right now,” she said.
The automatic voter registration laws in Oregon and California passed on strict party-line votes, and while proposals in states run by Democrats stand the best chance of moving forward, the effort is running into complications in part because of another progressive priority: expanding rights for undocumented immigrants. Proposals modeled on the Oregon bill call for the state’s motor vehicle department to run the registration program by adding people to the rolls when then apply for a driver’s license. But in states like Maryland that have recently signed off on giving licenses to undocumented immigrants, new laws prohibit DMV officials from checking a person’s citizenship status and verifying whether they are actually eligible to vote.
“It does present a very practical problem,” said Matt Clark, a spokesman for Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland. In December, Democrats in the state legislature introduced an automatic registration law, which Hogan, a Republican, has yet to take a position on. “He’s waiting to see what the condition of the bill is,” Clark said. Democrats have a veto-proof majority in Maryland, but party leaders have not said whether passage of the registration bill will be a priority in this year’s session. Republicans in the state believe Democrats are trying to bait Hogan into taking partisan stands on a host of issues, including the registration proposal. While Hogan’s stayed quiet so far, Clark cited concerns with the bill’s cost to local counties and its handling of eligibility verification. “It runs in stark contrast to another law,” he said. “It completely ignores the problem of checking eligibility for folks.”
The state Republican Party is strongly opposed to the automatic registration proposal, executive director Joe Cluster said. Calling the idea an example of “big government,” Cluster urged Hogan to follow his “mentor,” Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who vetoed a similar, Democrat-backed proposal last year. “It’s a waste of money, because we already have the mechanisms for people to vote and register to vote,” Cluster said. “There is nothing that stops someone being registered to vote other than that person not wanting to be registered to vote.” He also warned that automatic registration would eventually lead to compulsory voting and fining people who don't turn out, like in Australia. “Are we going to do that next?” Cluster asked.
Supporters of automatic registration note that all of the new laws and proposals give people the opportunity to opt out. Oregon began implementing its program through the state’s DMV at the beginning of the year, and through the first six weeks, 7 percent of people who received cards alerting them to their new registration returned the cards asking to be taken off the rolls. But the state registered more than 10,000 new voters over that same time period, dwarfing the monthly average of 2,000 new registrations it previously reported. Officials have projected that as many as 300,000 new voters could be added to the 2.2 million already signed up in Oregon.