Voting is, bizarrely, the only constitutional right for which you must sign an application.
You don’t have to register to speak your mind. You don’t have to register to own a firearm. You don’t have to sign up to have civil rights, drink alcohol, or avoid unlawful search and seizure.
You don’t have to register with a government office to be Catholic or Baptist or Islamic or Buddhist. You don’t have to register to be eligible for trial by jury or to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
So why should anyone have to register to vote?
Automatic voter registration is gaining traction in the United States. To date, 13 states and the District of Columbia have signed on. Adults in those states who get a driver’s license, sign up for government-brokered health insurance, or interact in another way with a government office are placed on the voter rolls.
California and Oregon were the first states to enact such policies. Oregon is even more progressive: Every voter gets an absentee ballot rather than having to request one.
Maryland is among the latest states to go the auto-registration route. Celebrating the decision, the American Civil Liberties Union called it “a common-sense way for states to expand access to the ballot.”
“Automatic voter registration has proven successful in expanding the voter rolls to make sure that every eligible American has an opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” wrote Brian Tashman, ACLU political researcher and strategist.
A 2017 report from the Brennan Center for Justice argued that auto-registration “boosts registration rates, cleans up the rolls, makes voting more convenient, and reduces the potential for voter fraud, all while lowering costs.”
Meanwhile, Ohioans have recently suffered a defeat when it comes to participating in our democracy.
While other states are interested in expanding registration, ours won a U.S. Supreme Court case June 11 that upholds Ohio’s aggressive practice of actively removing some of its voters from the books.
In a 5-4 vote along party lines, liberal justices opposed the haphazard way in which Ohio purges voters it decides may be ineligible. Conservative justices sided with Ohio, arguing the state’s actions don’t violate the National Voter Registration Act.
Sadly, the ruling upholds voting as a “use it or lose it” right.
Here’s how it works: If you don’t vote in a single federal election cycle, state officials send you a letter asking for confirmation you’re still there. If you don’t reply and don’t vote for another four years, your right to vote is revoked.
The assumption is that you’ve died or moved out of the state.
That’s a problem if you move from Oberlin to New Russia Township or Amherst to Avon or Wellington to Columbus — or just down the street — and don’t get the letter.
Let’s say you’re disgusted by the candidates the big parties put forward and decide voting for the lesser of two evils isn’t your style. It’s certainly your right not to vote. Between elections, you buy a new house and a few months later, your U.S. Post Office forwarding request expires. Eight years down the road you finally find a candidate you like, only to show up to your voting station to discover you’re no longer registered.
It’s a pretty shaky system the state has in place. It should be trivial for the government to check whether you are still a legal resident of Ohio. You file taxes. You have a driver’s license. You register your car or truck. You pay your water bill. You may have kids registered to attend school.
There is a paper trail.
In Ohio, deregistration hits Democratic voting districts more heavily than Republican ones. A 2016 analysis by Reuters found voters in the state’s three largest counties were purged at about twice the rate in Democratic-leaning neighborhods as Republican ones.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor flat out called it a way to disenfranchise minority and low-income voters.
In the dissenting opinion, she wrote that the court’s ruling “ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate.”
The state’s top elections officials say they need to remove voters who have died or moved out of state. Neither dead people nor non-residents tend to vote in Ohio, though. In fact, voter fraud is remarkably rare. The purge hurts more voters than the number of fraud cases it stops.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted responded to the ruling by instructing boards of elections statewide to hold off on purging the voter rolls until after the November election, citing deadlines included in the National Voter Registration Act.
So here’s the best advice I can give: If you value your right to vote, cast your ballot this fall. Don’t let the state take away your voice.