For 38 years Maine has been one of only a handful of states that allows people to register to vote on the same day as the election. Nine states allow some form of same day registration, though North Dakota probably has the most logical policy — there is no voter registration at all.
Earlier this year Maine rescinded both same day registration and absentee voting in the two business days before an election. On Monday 68,000 signatures were handed to the Maine Secretary of State’s office to put a “people’s veto” on the ballot in November to rescind this change. The result of that vote will determine whether Maine will allow same day registration in the 2012 election. The fact that this would come up for a referendum vote is not surprising; it’s clearly an emotional and consequential issue. However, most people did not think it would come up in 2011 because there simply wasn’t enough time to collect the necessary signatures. No grass roots effort had collected signatures so fast (a matter of weeks). Given that in an off year election enthusiasm and organization are primary factors, the wind is at the back of those wanting to rescind.
Yet is it a good idea? Proponents say yes. On average states with same day registration have 12% higher voter turn out. Since high voter turnout indicates participation in the political system and thus supports civil society, it is thus seen as a collective good no matter who might benefit. That’s probably true, though the benefit may be over-stated. Since 1986 I’ve lived only in states with same day registration — Minnesota and Maine. Those two states constantly vie to see who is number one in voter turnout. Yet I do not think the reason they are at the top is because of same day registration; there is a strong culture of participation and political action in each state. It could well be that states with same day registration have higher voter turnout because states that have a culture of valuing voting and voter turnout are the one who choose to pass such laws.
Is there a downside to same day registration? Opponents say yes — that there is a risk that people will vote in two different states, non-citizens might vote, or that “uninformed” people are more likely to vote. The latter argument is weakest, most voters are not well informed in any event, but those who aren’t registered are generally no less knowledgeable about politics than others.
The idea that non-citizens might vote requires people commit felonies. One day back in Minnesota I joined some colleagues in grad school to convince a German student studying in the US to vote in the 1992 election. He refused but finally said he’d do it. We then told him we were joking — there was no way we were going risk voter fraud and vouch for him just to allow him to vote! The odds of any one person changing an election are slight, how many people or organizations in this day of investigations and Youtube would really risk prison, fines, and perhaps their career just to add a few votes to an election total? One can imagine it being able to happen, but the likelihood is slight. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest non-citizens come out to vote due to same day registration.
Maine Republican Party Chair Charlie Webster claimed that the Democrats were using same day registration to “steal” elections, busing people in to vote. He had no evidence and is prone to hyperbole — he also said that Democrats are not a party but a special interest group, while Republicans are a legitimate party made up of real Americans who work and drive pick ups! Uh…Ok… When pressed he got a list of 200 students at the University of Maine at Farmington who were from out of state, yet voted. He said that was a ‘study into voter fraud’ and demanded an investigation.
Yet it was just a list, not a study. Out of state students usually are qualified to vote in Maine elections. There was no evidence any of the students had voted in two states, and most registered well before the election. Many who have come to condemn Webster’s antics are Republican students — college Republicans on campus make a concerted effort to register and convince out of state students to vote in Maine. Webster did probably help the petitioners in their drive to put the issue on the ballot though — that’s the kind of thing that motivates the other side. The real issue, of course, is that Democrats think same day registration helps them while Republicans are convinced it hurts their chances. The logic is simple: Democrats do well among youth and minorities, two populations that vote below the national average and are less likely to be registered. By extension these are the ones most likely to be persuaded to utilize same day registration.
New Hampshire’s Republican House Speaker William O’Brien showed a moment of honesty when he called to tighten up rules on who can vote in a New Hampshire election because “college kids are voting liberal, voting on their feelings with no life experience.” In other words, his goal is to try to decrease the chance that the youth might sway elections because they are liberal. First, if more life experience should be required to vote then repeal the 26th amendment reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower first suggested allowing 18 year olds to vote; if 18 year olds can die in war, they should be able to vote! (They should be allowed to buy beer too, but that’s another issue).
As for voting with their feelings — well, I suspect that describes most of the population! The bottom line is that on this issue the Democrats have the moral high ground. They may benefit from greater turnout, but arguing to suppress voting goes against American values. Republican efforts to eliminate same day voting (or require photo ID and other things proven to suppress turnout) are efforts to improve their chances of winning. Still, most states do not allow same day registration, and it’s not clear that it has ever swayed elections. Perhaps it is a convenient excuse when one loses; rather than admit the public didn’t support you, cry foul!
At this point the issue is not just about the merits of the policy, but it has become symbolic. For many Mainers the administration of tea party favorite Paul Le Page, who won with just 39% of the vote in a three way race that split liberal votes between the other two candidates, has aroused anger. This is a way for them to symbolically get back at him. It should be an interesting campaign; for now we wait until November to see if same day registration will be back in Maine for the 2012 election.