An open debate about compulsory voter registration is critical
Sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the new law requires that drivers who obtain or renew their licenses are registered to vote automatically. Supporters of the compulsory registration measure have hailed it as a way to increase voter turnout. It would, they say, empower the state’s disenfranchised and help overcome historical prejudices against minority groups who have a lower propensity to vote.
In practical terms, the political case for and against A.B. 1562 is clear. Democrats generally favor the bill, and Republicans oppose it, because the newly registered voters are more likely to support Democratic candidates. Both geographically and historically, the Democratic Party enjoys a substantial structural advantage over the Republican Party with the constituencies that currently are less likely to be registered.
California Democrats’ desire to exploit this advantage – follow the lead of their peers in Oregon, which also introduced compulsory registration – is hardly surprising. As recently as four years ago, Oregon had split legislative leadership. In the wake of compulsory registration, and in the political blink of an eye, the Beaver State has elected Democratic super-majorities.
But the question must be raised, is higher voter turnout an unalloyed positive? In the United States, we have the distinct privilege and responsibility to select our own leaders. Gradually, the nation has dispensed with all of the explicitly discriminatory practices that once limited the franchise to landowning white men, as tenants, African-Americans and women were extended the right to vote.
We also have done away with restrictions that were not explicitly discriminatory, but had discriminatory effects. Citizens do not have to pass poll tests or pay poll taxes. With no discriminatory barriers to civic participation remaining, the American electorate is more diverse than at any point in history.
Nonetheless, supporters of A.B. 1462 have pointed to the one basic requirement that does remain: the affirmative step of registering to vote. This, they claim, also has a discriminatory impact. That claim begs a fundamental question about the balance to be struck between accessibility and civic engagement.
It is not illegitimate to believe that the balance that existed before A.B. 1462 was appropriate. The threshold for political involvement has been that voters demonstrate just a minimum of interest and forethought before going to the polls. Indeed, a strong claim can be made that showing interest and forethoughtshould be a meaningful barrier to entry for those unengaged with the political process.
The response to this assertion from Democrats in the Capitol has been to resort to calls of prejudice. Instead of engaging on the merits, the bill’s supporters attributed nefarious and discriminatory motives to those who opposed their efforts. Armed with utter moral certainty, the bill’s supporters silenced debate.
More voters may well improve our democracy, but stifling dissent can only hurt it.