The ratios of political access and power are dangerously out of balance. In recent years, wealthy elites and corporations have gained significantly more control over and influence in government and policy, while everyone else – especially the young, communities of color, women, and low-income citizens – has seen their voices and access dramatically eroded. In no arena has this been so stark as voting, where the Right has enacting legislation in 21 states designed to prevent progressive constituencies from exerting their political power. The premise is simple – strong voter participation favors progressives, so conservatives have sought to narrow the electorate. Simultaneously, the Right’s successful legal assault on the Voting Rights Act has hindered the Justice Department’s ability to enforce voting rights.
Despite these challenges, recent legislative victories in OR, NJ, and CA have demonstrated that progressives also have the opportunity to go on oense – to enact reforms that structurally enable greater participation. Automatic voter registration (AVR), in particular, is one of the largest “game-changer” reforms, ensuring:
- That millions of voters are added to the rolls automatically when they interact with government agencies;
- That once citizens are signed up, they remain registered when they move within a state;
- That citizens can register to vote online; and
- That people can update their registration information at the polls.
If enacted nationally, AVR would add an estimated 50 million voters to the rolls. An additional practical implication of automatic voter registration is that it could be a huge cost savings for funders that have traditionally underwritten independent voter registration programs, freeing up millions of dollars to be devoted to other activities, such as issue advocacy or GOTV work. Other proactive reforms, such as Same Day Registration (SDR) and Online Voter Registration (OVR), have a demonstrated positive impact on participation, and there is a need for more SDR and OVR campaigns, as well, either in partnership with AVR or as steps toward it.
The other primary opportunity for progressives to run proactive campaigns is around rights restoration for formerly incarcerated citizens who are disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction. State laws vary widely in terms of the period of time and process by which these citizens are eligible to have their rights restored, but the collective impact of these laws is notable – nearly 6 million citizens were denied access to the ballot in 2012 due to a criminal conviction. Given the disproportionate numbers of Blacks and Latinos – especially Black and Latino men – who comprise the U.S. prison population, felon disenfranchisement laws play a significant role in making the American electorate less diverse than its citizenry and overrepresenting white voters.