To boost voter registration, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is asking legislators to back a plan that would automatically add anyone doing business with the Department of Motor Vehicles to the voter rolls.
Merrill said the concept “breaks fresh ground” and could add as many 400,000 new voters.
“Our democracy works best when more people are able to make their voices heard,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, which supports Merrill’s plan.
The basic idea behind Merrill’s proposed legislation is that anyone who does business with the DMV would automatically be registered to vote – and update the address for those already on the rolls if they’ve moved – unless they specifically request to remain unregistered. People would also have a chance to pick a political party affiliation at the same time, Merrill said.
Automatic registration has already become a political issue on the presidential campaign trail, with Democrats strongly backing it and a number of Republicans lambasting it for allegedly opening the door to abuse.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP hopeful, told The Record newspaper in New Jersey that Democratic contender Hillary Clinton supports the concept because she “just wants an opportunity to commit greater acts of voter fraud around the country.”
But Carole Mulready, chairperson of the League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford, said her group supports Merrill’s plan as a way “to make the voter registration process more accessible.”
Merrill, who is a Democrat, said the notion that the proposed revision would help Democrats is “completely misplaced.”
“This is a system that advantages the voters,” she said.
Political scientists who have studied voter registration have found generally that young and highly mobile people are the ones least likely to be registered. They tend to have lower incomes as well.
For example, in a 2015 report, ‘Why Voting Matters,’ a research associate at Demos, Sean McElwee, found that “white Americans, and particularly affluent white Americans” are much more likely to vote than “people of color, low-income people, and young people.”
“As a result,” he said, “large numbers of lesser-advantaged Americans are left out of the democratic process.”
Merrill said that one-third of the Connecticut residents who are eligible to vote are not registered. She said she figures at least 20 percent of the unregistered people would wind up on the rolls if her automatic registration measure is adopted.
Quickmire said the country as a whole has “the lowest voter registration rates of any industrialized democracy,” caused in part by difficult laws and in part by a highly mobile society.
Statewide, there are less than 2 million active voters on the rolls, with about 800,000 of them unaffiliated. Democrats hold the allegiance of 700,000 while the Republican Party has 400,000 in its camp.
Merrill envisions the information given by residents to the DMV would automatically also fill in a voter registration form. In addition, there would be an “e-signature” program that would allow people to certify their citizenship and a way to affiliate with a party if they choose.
The filled-in forms would then be electronically sent to local registrars of voters unless the person specifically opts out, which they will have an opportunity to do.
The Brennan Center for Justice, which is promoting the concept, said that that Oregon rolled out its new automatic registration system last month. It got 4,300 new voters on the rolls in its first six days, more than double its typical increase in the same period in the past.
It said that in Oregon and California, automatic registration is likely to add as many as 7 million voters to the rolls.
“Automatic, permanent voter registration has the power to transform voting in America,” Jennifer L. Clark, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said in a prepared statement Monday.
Connecticut has had a voluntary online voter registration system in place since 2014. Merrill said 80,000 people have used it so far.
Merrill said one of the biggest headaches for elections officials occurs on Election Day when voters show up at the poll only to find that their registration has an outdated address for them, which can make it harder for someone to cast a ballot.
By hooking into the DMV records, she said, addresses should be updated more readily, resulting in less confusion during for voters and poll workers.
Merrill said she’s looking forward to the debate about her proposal.
“I really would like to see a broad discussion in our state,” she said.