Inside Augusta

Maine now has automatic voter registration. How will the new system impact our elections?

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In a utopian society where there is no ill will or mistakes made in document processing, an automatic voter registration system might be a feasible idea. It is no secret that voter turnout in the United States hovered around 50 percent in 2018 and lags behind other countries overall. However, Maine does considerably better in turning out voters than the country as a whole, with over 60 percent turnout in 2018.

While there is still room for improvement, the automatic voter registration system proposed in LD 1463 and signed into law by Governor Mills on Wednesday would automatically register individuals to vote if they interact with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, public and private universities, or any other state agency or department the Secretary of State deems appropriate. The bill also gives individuals an opportunity to opt-out of being registered to vote. 

With this bill now signed into law, Maine joins 17 other states that have adopted an automatic voter registration (AVR) system. Proponents of the AVR argue that it will increase voter turnout because more people will participate in an election since they will already be registered when the next election rolls around. However, Maine already has same-day voter registration at the polls and gives people up to 21 days to register to vote via mail or by third party. This provides Mainers with plenty of opportunity to become a registered voter in the state and does so without requiring individuals to leave their homes. In addition, Maine has a robust absentee ballot program, allowing individuals to vote from the comfort of their home. 

While we encourage increased voter turnout in the United States and Maine, this bill would create an opt-out system rather than an opt-in mechanism and would automatically register people simply for coming into contact with state government or a college or university. By implementing an automatic registration system, the government is slowly eroding away at personal responsibility in favor of convenience. This is dangerous because it makes people more dependent on government to carry out a fundamental and basic function that all Mainers have the ability to perform up to and on the same day as an election. Automatically registering voters will almost certainly increase registration, but this does not mean they will vote in Maine elections once registered. 

The argument that increasing voter registration will subsequently increase turnout assumes that people eligible to vote are discouraged from doing so because the registration process is a hurdle. According to a Pew Research Center survey, only four percent of registered voters were reluctant to vote because of “registration problems.” Over half of the individuals surveyed said they did not vote because they lack an affinity for the candidates or the campaign issues, believe their vote does not make a difference or were too busy to vote. In this regard, LD 1463 is simply a solution in search of a problem. 

In addition to taking away personal responsibility, LD 1463 has the potential to be abused or have individuals mistakenly added to the voter rolls. When California implemented an automatic voter registration system, it was riddled with problems. While these problems were eventually fixed, Maine should retain the opt-in system it already has to prevent these issues. 

The first mistake in the California AVR system can be attributed to a software issue within the Department of Motor Vehicles. According to state election officials, approximately 77,000 voter records were affected by a software error and “potentially thousands” of cases resulted in two voter registration forms being creating for one person. This mistake could be disastrous if it occurred in Maine, especially since elections are routinely decided by just a handful of votes. Not to mention, individuals could have been denied access to party-specific ballots or could have voted twice. Imagine going to vote in a party primary and being denied access to the ballot because you were mistakenly registered as a member of the other party. 

Another mistake was made through human error when California’s Department of Motor Vehicle employees mistakenly did not clear their computer screens after each transaction. This resulted in employees marking over 23,000 registrations with information from other transactions, leading to thousands of voters having incorrect information in their files. Again, this could have resulted in someone being denied access to a party-specific ballot or preventing one from voting if they rattled off an address that wasn’t listed on file. Aside from these issues, approximately 1,500 people, including non-citizens, were mistakenly registered to vote in California. 

Registration mistakes are not only present in California. Some non-citizens were mailed voter registration cards from the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles after they applied for a state ID or a driver’s license. Immigration attorneys had alerted Pennsylvania election officials of the incidents after their clients received voter registration cards in the mail. While Pennsylvania does not have an AVR system, they mail voter registration cards to individuals that interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles. This type of human error could easily be translated to an AVR system. Non-citizens who are in the United States lawfully are permitted to apply for a driver’s license or state ID, which could lead to some of those individuals being registered to vote if human or software errors occur. 

This bill would also allow the Maine Secretary of State to designate universities as source entities that can automatically enroll individuals as voters if they collect documents that provide proof of voter eligibility. The primary concern here is that it would facilitate the enrollment of college students that may not have a full-time address in Maine; they are simply attending college in the state. There shouldn’t be opposition to college students exercising their right to vote, but more should be done to educate students about the residency rules we impose to vote in Maine elections. Past and present students may have unknowingly violated residency rules by participating in our elections. While we should encourage students to exercise their right to vote, we should also encourage they legally cast ballots, whether it be in Maine or their home state.

These incidents and potential threats to the integrity of our voting system illuminate the problems Maine could face now that the state has moved forward with implementing automatic voter registration. If similar issues are to occur, lawmakers and state officials should be worried about Maine citizens losing trust in the registration and voting process. Over all else, the key to retaining a democratic republic is ensuring citizens trust the voting process and that their vote counts on Election Day. 

In summation, increased voter registration may not translate to increased turnout, could be subject to error, fraud and abuse, and would take personal responsibility out of the voting equation. In other words, lawmakers and the Maine Secretary of State should have looked for alternative means to increasing voter turnout instead of implementing this solution in search of a problem. 

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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