Bernie Sanders tweeted on Friday, “if you are 18 in this country, you should automatically be registered to vote.” Sanders is rightfully concerned about the low voter turnout in the United States. In 2016, only 56% of the voting age population turned out to cast ballots. And despite a record year for midterm voter turnout, only 49.3% of the voting-eligible population participated in the 2018 midterms.
If you are 18 in this country, you should be automatically registered to vote. End of discussion.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 5, 2019
To be certain, this isn’t a new problem. Voter turnout has been relatively flat since 1912. Nonetheless, it continues to raise pervasive concerns. And the U.S. simply isn’t doing enough to proactively work against this gestating trend.
Voting Can Be A Hassle
The United States is one of the few countries that place the onus of voter registration squarely on the shoulders of the individual. In a comparative study, the Brennan Center For Justice found that the U.S. was one of only four democracies that didn’t proactively initiate voter registration. Indeed, voter registration in France and Germany is essentially automatic, with each country producing an average voter turnout of 67% and 69%, respectively.
A few states have sought to remedy this issue. Oregon, California, Vermont, West Virginia, and Connecticut have mandated automatic registration when citizens go to the DMV. 39 states allow for registration online. But in 2019, 11 states still require voter registration be done through snail mail or in person. North Dakota is the only state that allows you to vote simply by showing your ID on election day.
And rather than being proactive, many states are doing the exact opposite. Georgia is one state that invokes a “use it or lose it policy.” Between 2013 and 2017, nearly 850,000 voters were removed from voter rolls because they had chosen not to participate in two election cycles. Shockingly, this accounted for nearly 18% of the state’s voter-eligible population.
However, the spike in voter purges is a nationwide issue. From 2006 to 2008, 12 million voters were purged from voter rolls. But from 2014 to 2016 the number rose to 16 million, representing a 33% increase. It’s one thing to place the burden of voter registration entirely on the individual. That can at least be defended by deferring to the self-responsibility of the citizen. It is another thing entirely to actively suppress the vote.
But since 2010, the Brenner Center for Justice found that “25 states have put in place new restrictions since then — 14 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (and six states have implemented strict photo ID requirements), 12 have laws making it harder for citizens to register, seven cut back on early voting opportunities, and three made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.”
As more restrictions get piled on, exercising the right to vote becomes an obstacle to overcome rather than the expression of a constitutional right. And without active participation, the spirit of liberty begins to falter.
To Vote Enlivens the Spirit of Liberty
Writing in Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville marveled at the American population of the 19th-Century. The spirit of liberty amongst the citizens was quite unlike anything he had ever seen. And this spirit was fueled by active participation in the civic life of the community.
Indeed, Tocqueville was particularly impressed with the psychological impact that such participation had on the individual. By voting and governing, the citizen becomes interested in the political life “because he cooperates in directing it; he loves it because he has nothing to complain of in his lot; he places his ambition and future in it.” The citizen, actively bringing his own concerns forward, becomes invested in the destiny of the country.
And by doing so, the spirit of liberty is enlivened. The citizen “permeates himself with the spirit” of freedom. He “gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.” The citizen becomes a student of American democracy. He begins to develop an intimate understanding of his own individual rights. And from this understanding, he becomes respectfully observant of the rights of those within his community.
But Tocqueville also observed what happens when this participation wanes. In such people, the spirit of individual liberty is “less awake and less powerful.” It becomes more of a theoretical principle than something that is actively put to use. When this happens, the power of the government begins to grow “comparatively greater than that of the elector.” The people begin to exert a less direct influence on their affairs. And this “general indifference” nurtures the soil for despotism to grow.
There is value, then, in Bernie Sanders’s desire for voter registration reform. Voting needs to feel like a less of a burden and more of a constitutional right. It needs to be hassle-free and automatic. It must be proactively encouraged rather than deceitfully suppressed. And perhaps, as a result, there will be a revival of the spirit of liberty that caused Tocqueville to see America as a sight to behold.