May 20, 2019
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Implement automatic voter registration, carefully and cautiously

Micky Bedell | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN
A sign near the voter registration table at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor during the 2016 election.

As a general rule, Maine should actively encourage all eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote. The more people we have participating in our democracy, the better. And following that principle, it would be worthwhile Maine to move forward with a form of automatic voter registration.

Since the early 1990s, federal law has required states to allow citizens to register to vote when doing business at motor vehicle departments and social service agencies.

More recently, states have increasingly used the information their citizens provide to these government agencies to automatically register people to vote. Oregon was the first state to implement automatic voter registration in 2016, and roughly 15 other states have followed suit in some form, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures and Brennan Center for Justice.

Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon has introduced a bill that would make Maine the next state to do so, while allowing people to opt-out if they don’t want to be automatically registered.

That’s a good approach, if we can get the details right.

“The foundation of America is built on every eligible citizen’s ability to participate in our democracy,” Gideon said in testimony to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday, April 24. “That starts with making the right to exercise our vote as easy and accessible as possible.”

It’s tough to argue with that, in a general sense. But there are a few specific concerns about Gideon’s bill, raised by the officials who would be involved in the implementation and day-to-day oversight of the changes, that bear consideration as the Legislature considers implementing automatic voter registration (as we believe it should).

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn testified neither for nor against Gideon’s bill — offering support for automatic voter registration generally but raising concerns about some individual provisions within the proposal.

While Flynn indicated that a move toward automation could make the existing paper-based process for collecting and transmitting voter registration data to municipal registrars more efficient, she also made a good case for scaling back parts of Gideon’s bill to ensure the Secretary of State’s Office can implement the changes effectively.

For instance, Gideon’s bill would require the Secretary of State’s Office to have automatic voting rules in place by January 2020 for all state “source agencies” that collect information that can be used to register voters. Flynn suggested that timeline only be applied to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to start and expanded to other agencies in the future.

That is a sensible starting point. As Flynn explained, the Secretary of State’s Office needs to make sure that data from different state agencies are shared in compatible formats, and that voter registration information is transferred securely and accurately to municipal registrars.

A representative of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association similarly cautioned legislators about the challenges of data matching, and recommended that if Maine is to persue automatic voter registration, that it be implemented over several years.

Initially limiting automatic voting implementation to the BMV, and not rushing to do so at other state agencies outside of the Secretary of State’s Office, is prudent given the experience of several other states.

In California, for example, a push to implement automatic voter registration before the 2018 election resulted in glitches and errors, including the accidental registration of some noncitizens. And similarly, Vermont temporarily shut down its AVR system in 2017 when a handful of noncitizens were erroneously registered to vote. Both issues were discovered and addressed before elections.

Those experiences, while cause for consideration and pause, are not reasons to forgo automatic voter registration all together. But they are instructive examples of why Maine should take its time to institute AVR carefully and incrementally in order to make sure it truly improves our existing system — and anticipates and takes steps to mitigate any unintended consequences or glitches.

Gideon’s bill offers a good place to start. Encouragingly, it has support from Democrats, Independents and Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Dana Dow. Members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee working on the bill should look to incorporate suggestions from the Secretary of State’s office and consider the concerns raised by municipal clerks.

Compared to the rest of the country, Maine does not have a pressing problem getting people to participate in elections, with roughly 60 percent voter turnout in 2018. But we should always be pushing to get closer to 100 percent, and automatic voter registration can help.

This would be a useful Democratic reform for Maine, but it is critical that we take our time, lean on the expertise of Maine election officials and get the process right the first time around.



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