The free and fair exercise of our right to vote is the foundation of our democracy and the American experiment. Too often we take our right for granted, forgetting how groundbreaking it was when voting was enshrined in our founding documents, and how hard we have had to fight to protect and gradually expand that right to all Americans, including women and people of color.
Recently, the Maine House of Representatives took another small step forward along that long slow road to full democracy. They voted in favor of a bill (LD 1232) directing the office of the Secretary of State to study a system of automatic voter registration in use in other states and make a recommendation to the Legislature next year about whether and how best to implement it in Maine.
This bill isn’t tantamount to crossing the bridge at Selma or the suffragettes marching on Washington, but neither should it be dismissed.
Implementing automatic voter registration and allowing people to register or update their voter information when they visit the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or other government agencies would make voter registration easier and more secure for many Maine people. It is a small but significant improvement to our democratic system, and it could greatly benefit older Mainers, people with disabilities, families that move often due to work or service in the Armed Forces, and those who live in rural areas.
The League of Women Voters is committed to engaging all Maine people in the process of electing our leaders and encouraging all eligible voters to participate in the electoral process. The first step toward participation in elections is registering to vote. Automatic voter registration will make it easier for many eligible Maine citizens to take that first step — to get registered. This one improvement will make registering easier for Maine people, will reduce the potential for errors in the voting rolls, and will ultimately save money and time at all levels of the election process.
Maine is far from alone in taking this step, and we have seen success in the other states that have already made this improvement to update their voting systems. The League of Women Voters of Oregon, California, Alaska and Connecticut were part of the coalitions that passed automatic voter registration in their states, and they paid close attention to the legislation and the implementation to ensure that the new systems of registration did not negatively impact underrepresented communities.
As Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap put it recently, “The national experience around automatic voter registration is one of cleaner information provided by the voters themselves, and less paperwork to manage by local elections officials.”
Secretaries of state across the country have supported automatic voter registration, not just because it improves our democracy, but because it improves their bottom lines. Making the voter registration process more straightforward and efficient saves taxpayer money at the same time that it removes a source of hassle (at best) for thousands of Maine voters.
Maine has been at the forefront of voter participation for more than two generations, but according to a report by the Pew Center on the States, “Voter registration in the United States largely reflects its 19th-century origins and has not kept pace with advancing technology and a mobile society.”
While we do not underestimate the careful planning, design and training required to bring us into the 21st century, it is important that Maine continue to be a leader in adopting these modernizations. Digitizing our system, coordinating information across agencies and registering voters automatically are the least we should be doing.
Regardless of the votes and vetoes that may come in the next few weeks on this issue, we should take this moment to applaud the Maine House for standing up for democracy, and we should recommit ourselves to the mission of ensuring that free and fair access to the ballot continues to be an American right.
Ann Luther serves as chair of the Maine Advocacy Committee of the League of Women Voters. She lives in Trenton.