A group that includes former aides to President Obama are beginning a multimillion-dollar push to expand automatic voter registration and fight back against a nationwide Republican effort to tighten voting laws.
The Democratic group, called iVote and co-led by top aide to Obama’s campaigns Jeremy Bird, aims to make voter registration in the 50 states automatic when people apply for driver’s licenses or other identification cards. That money is coming both from grassroots fundraising and a number of larger donors.
Many of the millions of dollars to be deployed by iVote will be spent on advertising, public opinion research and outreach as part of an education program. iVote’s political arm will aim to steer legislation and pass ballot initiatives in states across the country, from Illinois and New York to Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Ohio.
“With automatic voter registration, we can not only make our electoral system more modern and fair, but bring 51 million American citizens—most of whom are disproportionately poor, young and minority—permanently into the political process,” said senior advisor to iVote Hari Sevugan, also a former Obama campaign aide. “In short, this is a game changer.”
The campaign comes at a crossroads for voting rights in the country. Since the Supreme Court partially struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Republicans across the country have been pushing to tighten voting laws, saying that it is too easy for people to fraudulently vote. Democrats have said there is no evidence of common voter fraud, and have accused Republicans of seeking to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters who often vote Democrat.
Meanwhile, Oregon and California have already passed automatic voter registration into law, becoming the first states to do so this year. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed similar legislation on Monday.
“New Jersey taxpayers deserve better than to have their hard-earned tax dollars spent on thinly-veiled political gamesmanship and the State must ensure that every eligible citizen’s vote counts and is not stolen by fraud,” the governor and presidential candidate said in a statement.
iVote and other proponents of the legislation counter that the system is fraud-proof: registration is done through the same system of registered driver’s licenses. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act already makes it optional for people to register when they apply for driver’s licenses. Under the new system, voters would have to opt out of registering.
Democrats harshly criticized Christie for vetoing the legislation.
“Governor Christie’s veto of the Democracy Act is disturbing but not surprising,” said Democratic National Committee vice chair of voter registration and participation Donna Brazile. “Instead of signing into law a bill that could have expanded ballot access for 1.6 million people in the Garden State, the governor chose to put Republican political interests ahead of a stronger democracy.”
The United States suffers from low turnout compared with other democracies, with just about 53.6% of voting age population turning out to cast ballots in 2012. In France, turnout in national elections in 2012 exceeded 70%, and was more than 90% in Sweden in 2014; both of those countries have some form of automatic voter registration.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed automatic voter registration when citizens turn 18 and argued that felons who have served their time should have their voting rights reformed.