Forty years ago, at a point when Americans were profoundly concerned about declining voter participation, democracy advocates proposed a fix: “instant voting.”
To remove barriers and increase participation in elections, the argument went, officials should make it possible for citizens to show up at a polling place, register to vote and then cast a ballot.
Instead of jumping through registration and participation hoops over a period of weeks, even months, people could just vote.
A handful of states—Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin—began to implement the idea and something exciting happened: turnout soared.
But the approach was controversial.
In my home state of Wisconsin, then-Governor Pat Lucey implemented the reform.
Lucey, who died last week at age 96, was a remarkable figure. He helped build the modern Democratic Party of Wisconsin, ushering an an era of two-party competition for a state where in the mid-1950s virtually every top official was a Republican. He was close to the Kennedys, playing especially important roles in the John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run and Bobby Kennedys 1968 race. He bid for the vice presidency in 1980 as the running mate of liberal Republican John Anderson on a “national unity” ticket. As a prominent realtor in Wisconsin, he championed open housing as a part of a broad commitment to civil rights. As governor, he forged a strong university system, established fair and equitable funding for public schools, reformed criminal justice and the courts, fostered labor-management cooperation and economic growth, and appointed the first woman to the state Supreme Court.
But some of Lucey’s greatest accomplishments were as a political reformer, who championed open government and campaign finance reform—and who fought to make it easy to vote.
Pat Lucey believed in high-turnout elections. And Lucey was enough of a structural reformer to recognize that policies could contribute to making lofty rhetoric about popular democracy into an Election Day reality. Indeed, his support for Election Day voter registration was so significant that it helped to make this particular reform central to a national debate about how to expand the electorate.
In the mid-1970s, Lucey and his legislative allies moved to enact what the national media referred to as “instant voting”—a new set of rules designed to allow citizens to simply show up at a polling place, register and cast a ballot. This was a radical change from the restrictive rules that were in place in much of the country, many of which had their roots in the machinations of big-city bosses and Southern segregationists who were disinclined toward expanding the electorate.
When Wisconsin enacted rule changes to remove barriers to voting, it was national news. The New York Times highlighted Wisconsin’s 1975 plan for “easy and instant voting.” Critics screamed that this was a recipe for fraud, expressing particular concern about language that allowed for registration with a Wisconsin driver’s license, a student ID or fee card “or any other ID judged to be acceptable by local election officials.” There were demands for monitoring of elections by the US attorney’s office in Milwaukee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But after a review of the 1976 election, officials confirmed that the FBI “found no evidence of fraud or voter theft.”
What was found was high turnout. In November 1976, 210,000 Wisconsinites—11 percent of the total electorate—registered at the polls. The Times reported that “in Milwaukee, for example, registration in 1974 was at the comparatively high level of 65 percent. After Wisconsin adopted Election-Day registration in 1976, registration jumped to 86 percent.” Hailing the Wisconsin accomplishment, along with more modest advances in Minnesota (which also embraced Election Day registration), the paper argued that all America should “trust democracy by enlarging it.”
President Jimmy Carter agreed. He tried to take the Wisconsin model national, with a proposal for universal Election Day registration. It never quite happened. This country continues to have a patchwork of different registration rules, some of them absurdly restrictive. And there have been efforts in a number of states, including Wisconsin, to eliminate Election Day registration and limit related reforms such as those allowing for early voting.
These are moves in the wrong direction. So wrong that they have frequently been blocked by responsible legislators and the courts. But Maine Governor Paul LePage and his allies actually did eliminate Election Day registration in that state in 2011—only to have it restored by a 60-40 popular vote in November of the same year. Former American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Director Shenna Bellows, who helped get the issue on the ballot and who now is a US Senate candidate, said at the time, “Maine voters sent a clear message: No one will be denied a right to vote.”
Voters like Election Day registration, and for good reason—Election Day registration works.
As Demos notes:
Voting rights advocates have long argued that no voter should lose their access to the ballot just because they missed a registration deadline, or because a paperwork error left them off the rolls. Any number of studies have found that turnout will get a boost if people can register on Election Day, and that argument is backed up by the (data analyzed Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that encourages nonprofits to engage voters).
Among states that allow residents to establish or update their registration the same day they vote, turnout was 71.3 percent on average—far above the 58.8 percent for the remaining states. Five of the Same Day Registration states appear in the top 10.
This effect can’t be explained away by other factors. For example, one useful predictor of voters’ inclination to participate was the margin in the presidential race—turnout was highest in the 10 swing states where the Obama and Romney campaigns battled most intensely. But even among these 10 swing states, the three that allow Same Day Registration easily beat out the others in turnout, with Colorado the only exception.
Unfortunately, Election Day registration is not universal, as Pat Lucey, Jimmy Carter and the reformers of the 1970s hoped it would be.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, less than a third of US states “currently offer, or have enacted laws which provide for Election Day registration, allowing eligible citizens to register or update their records on Election Day.” Several states have moved recently to create the option, including California, Maryland and Hawaii. But most Americans, especially those in Southern states with historically low turnout patterns, don’t have it.
So Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has proposed a Same Day Registration Act, which would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to require states with a voter registration requirement to make same-day voter registration—or revision of an individual’s voter registration information—available at the polling place on the date of election itself. The Ellison proposal would also make those options available during early voting periods. The congressman says the United States can and must “ensure [that] our nation lives up to its ideals and protects the most fundamental right in our democracy.”
That was what Pat Lucey did almost four decades ago with his push for “instant voting.” History has proven Lucey and the voting advocates of the 1970s right. They recognized, as we all should, that the promise of democracy is made real when voting is easy and turnout is high.