It is hard to recall a time when politics at the national level was so utterly paralyzed. Even when the Democratic White House and Senate align their stars, which has been difficult because of the anti-democratic filibuster, the Tea Party–dominated House is gleefully positioned to kill everything. Given the improbability of Democrats retaking the House in November, that harsh reality seems unlikely to change.
But in some states, there is another option. Even following the 2010 election meltdown, there are eleven states where Democrats have won the trifecta, meaning they control the governor’s seat as well as both houses of the legislature. Those states are California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Washington, Arkansas, West Virginia, Hawaii, Delaware and Vermont. (After the election the list might include Colorado, New York and Oregon, though Democrats could lose Arkansas and Washington.) In these states, there are not enough obstructionist Republicans or Fox News dittoheads to spoil progressive change. The only obstacle is the Democratic Party itself.
So imagine you are the governor of one of these trifecta states. What agenda would you join your legislature in pursuing? There is plenty of low-hanging legislative fruit that Democrats ought to grab, pronto. The best of these proposals are not merely important from a fairness and good-government standpoint; if enacted, they would benefit the Democratic Party by leveling a playing field that is tilted toward the Republicans. As a bonus, they would become models for the federal level, in case Congress ever emerges from the quicksand in which it is stuck.
Automatic Voter Registration
Nearly a quarter of eligible voters—at least 51 million Americans—are not registered, according to a recent Pew Center study. Despite claims by conservatives like George Will, who has written that the reason people don’t vote is that they’re satisfied with the status quo, we know that the unregistered come disproportionately from the ranks of racial minorities, the poor and the young. Those demographic groups have the fewest reasons to feel satisfied—and when they do vote, they are the most reliable Democratic voters in the country. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll found that Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney by 43 percent to 14 percent among the nearly two in five eligible voters who are likely to sit out the election.
The norm in established democracies around the world is to register all citizens automatically when they reach the age of eligibility. There are no forms to fill out; eligible voters are simply assigned a unique identifier, like a Social Security number, which follows them for life. When the government takes responsibility for achieving 100 percent registration, there are no more partisan battles over who is or is not registered, and registration status is removed from the contested terrain of politics. Those primarily concerned with reducing voter fraud should support universal registration as well, since the Pew Center study found that it would resolve approximately 24 million inaccurate registrations.
By enacting automatic voter registration, trifecta-state Democrats would not only enroll millions of eligible citizens; those newly registered would be strongly inclined to vote Democratic. The Republicans certainly know this, so they have pushed voter ID requirements and fought most attempts to expand voter registration (such as election day registration). When I directed the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, we sponsored a bill in the California legislature to enact automatic voter registration. The Republican caucus fiercely opposed it, calling it “un-American.” Even more disappointing, Democrats—including the usually progressive secretary of state—failed to embrace it. To their credit, California Democrats recently passed a measure to enact election day registration. That will certainly help. But it won’t come close to achieving universal registration.