Another federal ‘solution’

U.S. House Democrats have another dandy one-size-fits-all remedy they want to force on state governments to solve low voter turnout.

It’s called automatic voter registration (AVR). Nevada already has it, which is the way it should be put in place—by states. Registering voters is none of Congress’s business. It’s a local function. Oh, Congress has the authority, at least in federal elections—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that Congress can regulate federal elections (Oregon v. Mitchell), and there is no separating federal and local. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it sensible.

We have been down this road before. In 1987, the Nevada Legislature approved Motor Voter, a program under which people could register to vote when they register their car or renew their driver licenses. State lawmakers enacted the program in hope that it would improve Nevada’s dismal voter turnout record by making it easier to jump through voter registration hoops. It was a good idea. There was just one problem. It didn’t work. It has never worked, either in Nevada or nationally. Motor Voter racked up high numbers of voter registrations that then led to low turnout elections. Nevada still has one of the worst turnout records. Voters turn out when they think an election is close or when—as in 2018—they feel engaged by the issues. Ease of registration just doesn’t do it.

Then, in 1993, Congress imposed Motor Voter nationwide. Now Nevada could not get rid of a program that had been tried and failed, nor could other states, because the Democrats’ bill did not allow for the possibility that Motor Voter would not work.

Nevadans last year enacted automatic voter registration when they approved ballot Question 5. Another 14 states plus D.C. also have AVR. They may not work like the program proposed in the Democratic bill, so if a federal version is approved, each state will have to bring their program into compliance with the federal design, just as Nevada had to adapt Motor Voter to a federal version.

In our polarized politics, the right wing is already peddling versions of what the Democrats’ proposal will do: “Pelosi’s election ’reform’ encourages voter fraud to benefit Dems” (Fox “News”), “Nancy Pelosi is trying to federalize California’s bad election laws” (Washington Examiner).

D.C. thinking tends to use mandatory techniques to try to make federal proposals work. For instance, in an effort to get New Mexico in compliance with federal Motor Voter, a court decree called for compelling voters to act on their registration status during motor vehicle transactions. Should residents have to deal with their voter registration as a condition of renewing a driver license? This is the United States, where voting is voluntary.

The Democratic proposal is buried inside a 571-page measure that deals with numerous other proposals that are useful and have greater application to national concerns, such as repairing damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Democrats don’t need the distortions that are being concocted about automatic voter registration applied to the larger measure. And the states don’t need another program they cannot tailor to local needs.