In the face of America’s abysmal voter participation rates, lawmakers have two choices: They can make voting easier, or they can make it harder.
Illinois made the right choice this week, becoming the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to enact automatic voter registration. The bill, which could add as many as one million voters to the state’s rolls, was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who had vetoed similar legislation last year.
Under the new law, all eligible voters will be registered to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies. If they do not want to be registered, they may opt out.
“The right to vote is foundational for the rights of Americans in our democracy,” Mr. Rauner said at a bill-signing ceremony on Monday. “We as a people need to do everything we can to knock down barriers, remove hurdles for all those who are eligible to vote, to be able to vote.”
Consider Texas, which is pushing relentlessly in the opposite direction of Illinois. Republican lawmakers there passed in 2011, and continue to defend today, one of the nation’s most restrictive voter-ID laws, which has been tied up in court challenges from the start. Last week a federal judge in Corpus Christi struck downthe law on the grounds that it intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters, who tend to vote Democratic, in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. The acceptable forms of identification — a gun permit, for example, but not a student ID card — were more likely to be held by white voters, the judge found.
The judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, had invalidated portions of the law in 2014, but gave the state a chance for a do-over. In her latest ruling, Judge Ramos found that Texas’ fixes offered no improvement. For instance, a new provision requires prospective voters without a photo ID to sign an affidavit that threatens severe penalties for perjury — but that only “trades one obstacle to voting with another,” the judge wrote. (President Trump’s Justice Department disagreed. The department under President Barack Obama had sued to block the original law, but now it has switched sides, arguing that the revised law is not discriminatory.)
The voter-ID law is one of several recent cases in which federal courts have found that Texas is discriminating against minorities in voting. You’d think state officials would get the message, but they’re as defiant as ever. Ken Paxton, Texas’ attorney general, has appealed the rulings, calling them “outrageous.”
What’s really outrageous is the brazenness with which Republican lawmakers continue to hawk their antivoter laws, and their bogus claims of widespread fraud, pretending to care about electoral integrity when what they’re really after is a smaller, whiter electorate that they believe is their ticket to eternal victory. If Texas really cared about integrity, it would invest in educating the public about how to get the free identification that it now offers as one option. But even though an estimated 600,000 registered Texas voters lack that ID, the state issued only 869 free IDs between 2013 and 2017, according to a report by ProPublica.
Meanwhile in Oregon, which in 2015 became the first state to pass automatic voter registration, more than 272,000 people were registered in the law’s first year, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. Of these, 116,000 were found to be unlikely to have registered otherwise, and 40,000 of that group voted in 2016, helping Oregon achieve the nation’s largest turnout increase from 2012 — 4.1 points, to 68.3 percent. Contrary to Republican fears, that increase did not equal Democratic gains. Democrats lost seats in the State Legislature, even though the new voters were more racially diverse than previously registered voters.
In other words, increasing voter participation should be a bipartisan project. That hasn’t been the case for years, and it won’t be as long as President Trump is in the White House, deputizing his merry band of vote suppressors to justify his myth of illegal voters.