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Hillary Clinton: Let's make voter registration automatic

Michael B. Thomas / AFP / Getty
  1. On Thursday, June 4, Hillary Clinton called for automatic registration of American citizens to vote when they turn 18, "unless they actively choose to opt out."
  2. In a speech in Houston, Texas, Clinton said there is "a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people."
  3. She called out several GOP presidential hopefuls by name — including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Perry — for supporting policies she said would make it more difficult for legitimate voters to cast their ballots.
  4. Clinton added that Republicans should "stop fearmongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they're so scared of letting citizens have their say."

Automatic voter registration is a new frontier in American politics

Historically, American democracy has made it difficult for many people to vote — especially if they were from groups that elites didn't want voting. But over the past few decades, many of these barriers have fallen, and voter registration has become easier. For instance, federal law now allows people across the country the option to register to vote at the DMV.

But in the vast majority of the United States, it's still simply taken for granted that adult citizens should have to take the extra step of registering before being allowed to cast a ballot. Furthermore, many states close off registration weeks or a month before the election. If you miss the deadline, you're out of luck. (Except in North Dakota, where there's no voter registration at all.)

So in March of this year, Oregon became the first state in the nation to make voter registration automatic, using information collected by the state's DMV. The new law required provisional registration of every adult citizen with a driver's license who wasn't yet registered. Then these newly registered people would have a few weeks to opt out, in case they preferred not to add their names to the voter rolls.

Clinton's plan doesn't go quite that far — it would automatically register newly 18-year-old voters. And she doesn't propose a specific way to make it happen.

But her announcement is another major step toward changing the norms around voting in US politics — making it the government's responsibility to ensure that all adult citizens can vote, rather than the citizen's responsibility to check enough boxes early enough to meet the appropriate requirements.

Matt Yglesias has argued for going even further and enshrining an affirmative right to vote in our Constitution — read his case here.

This post has been updated.