BY MICHAEL AUSLEN
Indiana is hardly the poster child for voting rights. In 2005, it became the first state in the country to pass a strict photo identification (ID) requirement for voting—a measure criticized as an unfair barrier to participation for poor and minority communities. When the US Supreme Court refused to throw out the law in a landmark 2008 decision, a wave of conservative states jumped to pass similar restrictions. Critics have called Indiana’s voting laws “some of the worst . . . in the nation,” accusing Republican state officials of voter suppression.
Yet just one year after passing its controversial ID bill, Indiana became an early adopter of an innovative policy to make voting easier. The state started a pilot program for counties to open “vote centers,” which replace traditional voting at neighborhood-based precincts with a smaller number of central locations where any voter from the county can cast a ballot. In 2011, Indiana lawmakers made the pilot program available to all 92 counties statewide. By making voting more convenient, vote centers have been shown to increase turnout, particularly among infrequent voters.
Indiana isn’t alone. While the prevailing narrative is that Republicans and Democrats are on opposite sides of the voting-rights debate, a quiet movement to ease voting in conservative states has been stirring under the surface for years.
The politics of the national voting-rights debate are relatively straightforward: conventional wisdom tells us that when more people vote, Democrats tend to do better. This is, in part, because low-income and working-class voters who face inflexible demands on their time—and are thus less likely to turn out—tend to support Democrats. Nevertheless, Republican-dominated legislatures in states like Indiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and Texas have adopted surprising policy changes to make voting simpler than ever before. It is a heartening shift for voting-rights activists, who have generally responded with shock and cautious optimism.
While the prevailing narrative is that Republicans and Democrats are on opposite sides of the voting-rights debate, a quiet movement to ease voting in conservative states has been stirring under the surface for years.
To be clear, there remains an intense partisan element to this debate, especially in the era of Donald Trump. The president has repeatedly doubled down on unsubstantiated Republican claims of rampant voter fraud, which are often invoked to justify policies like voter ID. His eager entrance into the debate, through tweets and the formation of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, has made an already divisive set of questions more partisan.
However, the success of progressive voting reforms by conservative state legislatures and their implementation by Republican secretaries of state reveals a broader truth: voting reform need not be partisan.
The Case for Simplifying Voting
Voter participation in the United States lags dramatically behind other developed nations. In 2016, about 55 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot here, compared to rates as high as 87 percent and 83 percent in the most recent elections in Belgium and Sweden, respectively. How US states administer elections, in part, propels this trend.
Most fundamentally, tens of millions of Americans are simply not registered to vote. Although an exact number is difficult to estimate, studies suggest that there may be more than 51 million unregistered citizens—equaling nearly one-quarter of the eligible voting population. This is partly because registering to vote is a hassle. Some states set registration deadlines weeks or even months before Election Day, and voters must re-register each time they move. These barriers can cripple turnout by as much as 5–10 percent.
Even registered voters don’t always participate, because they find it inconvenient. US elections fall on Tuesdays, and full-time workers may face unavoidable scheduling conflicts that prevent them from voting. Most states also require voters to cast ballots at precinct locations near their homes (and not necessarily near their workplaces or other convenient locations), making voting during the work day more onerous.
Determining how to mitigate these barriers to voting—and even whether they are worth trying to address—falls upon states, and each has responded differently. Some have taken it upon themselves to push for greater participation by loosening restrictions on voting.
Closing the Registration Gap
In 2016, the Republican-led legislature in West Virginia did something surprising. Lawmakers in Charleston passed the nation’s third automatic voter registration law—the first to pass in a conservative state or by a bipartisan vote. The legislation instructs state officials to automatically register eligible voters when they obtain or renew a driver’s license or state ID card. Instead of requiring eligible adults to opt in, they are registered by default unless they opt out. Once implementation of the law begins, West Virginia voters will be able to treat the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) as a one-stop shop for both obtaining or renewing licenses and for updating their voter registrations.
This move by West Virginia was shocking, particularly since the proof of concept for the policy comes from Oregon. Oregon successfully implemented automatic registration ahead of the 2016 election, and data suggest that the program registered more than 272,000 new voters—almost 100,000 of whom participated in the presidential election for the first time.
West Virginia’s statute passed with bipartisan support, primarily because it was part of a legislative compromise that also ushered in a new voter ID requirement (which is, notably, far more permissive than strict photo ID laws in states like Indiana). Good-government groups lauded this deal as a good-old-fashioned compromise between Democrats and Republicans in a political age when such moments are rare.
But Republicans themselves also heralded automatic voter registration as a common-sense, apolitical reform.
“If you’re making an argument against it, I don’t know what it is,” State Senator Craig Blair, the Republican whip, told the Huffington Post. “When you’re automatically registered to vote, that makes your life easier.” Republican Senator Charles Trump (no relation to Donald) said it “surprises” him that the issue has been partisan and divisive in other states.
A few months later, Alaska voters directly passed a similar policy, and Republican Senator Dan Sullivan celebrated the result as an “opportunity to cut waste and stop forcing people to fill out more and more forms.”  Georgia’s government put automatic registration into place via administrative action.
It may seem counterintuitive that states like West Virginia, Alaska, and Georgia are turning to automatic voter registration, given the common wisdom that when more people vote, Democrats tend to perform better. And while elected officials tend to say they support such measures because they provide efficiency and simplicity in the voting system, a recent article in Governing magazine suggests that Republicans may be willing to allow automatic registration because they have far less to lose than common wisdom suggests.
We might assume that adding millions to the voting rolls nationwide would increase access primarily for underrepresented and historically disenfranchised groups, like the poor and racial minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats. However, roughly two-thirds of unregistered adults nationwide are White. While experts say this trend doesn’t mean automatic voter registration is a “slam dunk” for Republicans, it certainly suggests that they may not be harmed by the policy as much as the typical narrative presumes.
Republican-led states have also led other voter registration reforms. The only state in the country that does not require registration at all is as conservative as they come: North Dakota. The state hasn’t required registration to vote since 1951, although it does require voters to bring proof of residency or to sign and swear affidavits that they are residents. Republican Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger’s office freely acknowledges that this has created no problems with fraud or non-resident voting.
In addition, eligible residents in Idaho and Wyoming can register when they cast ballots in person on Election Day, a practice known as same-day registration. This policy eliminates the burden of traditional laws that require voters to register weeks ahead of the election.
Voting in Places We Already Go
The old way Americans voted—by waiting in line, on a Tuesday, at a pre-assigned library or school near home—is becoming increasingly arcane. Conservative states have contributed significantly to crafting policies that allow voters to participate when and where they see fit.
Indiana’s vote center pilot in 2006 and permanent adoption in 2011 were early milestones in the model’s development nationwide. Today, a host of conservative states, including Arizona, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, has readily championed the idea.
Here’s how a vote center works: election officials identify a handful of locations to serve as polling places on Election Day or during an early voting period. Selected locations are often convenient community spaces, like school gyms or recreation centers. In Texas, some county election officials have turned to grocery stores and malls, encouraging voters to cast a ballot while they’re out doing the week’s shopping. Vote centers then take advantage of computer technology. Poll workers can look up each person in a database of registered voters and print a ballot that is customized to their precinct (only including the races they are eligible to vote in).
“If you’re making an argument against it, I don’t know what it is,” State Senator Craig Blair, the Republican whip, told the Huffington Post. “When you’re automatically registered to vote, that makes your life easier.”
The process is almost the exact same as voting at a precinct. However, voters have greater flexibility and are able to choose from multiple, convenient locations to cast a ballot.
The voter center model has proven to be appealing to states controlled by both parties. In addition to making voting more convenient, vote centers reduce administrative costs. Election administrators pay fewer poll workers, put on fewer training sessions, and buy fewer voting machines due to economies of scale. As mentioned earlier, vote centers also appear to significantly increase turnout, especially among unlikely voters. In sum, if properly operated, they allow election officials to boost turnout while lowering overall costs. That’s what happened in Indiana. After a few years with vote centers, Hoosier counties were able to increase turnout and decrease the aggregate cost of their elections.
These benefits turn on vote centers being sufficiently funded and located equitably throughout the community. For example, in the 2016 presidential primary, Arizona’s Maricopa County switched from precincts to vote centers, decreasing the number of polling places in response to state election budget cuts. But they weren’t equipped to handle the large number of voters, leading to widely publicized long lines. In the aftermath of the debacle, the county came under fire from voting-rights activists who said the locations of the new vote centers may have privileged White voters over Latinx communities.
An End to “Election Day”
Americans are voting before Election Tuesday more and more. The rise of mail voting (also called no-excuse absentee voting) and in-person early voting is dramatic. In Florida, for example, Republican lawmakers passed a 10–15-day early voting period as well as a mail ballot option that any voter can use without proving they will be away during the election. In the last four general elections, more than half of Florida’s votes have been cast by mail or in person before Election Day.
At the far end of the spectrum, several states have turned to all-mail voting to make elections simpler and more efficient. The model is true to its name: every voter is treated as an absentee voter and automatically receives a ballot in the mail. Four states (Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and California) have adopted all-mail elections statewide, though they occasionally have in-person voting options for major races. Although none of these states can be reasonably characterized as conservative, at least some Republican secretaries of state and election administrators say all-mail elections feel “more secure” and eliminate the problem of running two redundant elections—one in person and one via mail.
Evidence shows that more voters participate when they are automatically mailed ballots, including those who vote less often. The turnout bump from all-mail voting has a clear political upside for conservatives. Historically, Republicans have been as much as 1.7 times more likely to vote absentee than Democrats.
Alaska—the country’s most remote and least densely populated state—is perhaps the greatest pioneer of policies that prioritize voter convenience. Any Alaska voter can download a ballot from a secure server, fill it out on their computer, and return it electronically to be counted like a normal paper ballot. Alaska is the only state to extend electronic balloting to all of its registered voters, and the law was passed by a heavily Republican legislature.
Notably, cybersecurity experts have expressed concern over Alaska’s experiment, fearing the state may not be doing enough to protect against hacking. These concerns are timely and valid, but they do not detract from Alaska Republicans’ commitment to the state’s voters.
Hope for Bipartisan Voting Rights
Democracy demands strong public engagement. And the most straightforward way Americans engage democracy is through voting. Technology can help modern democracies dramatically reduce barriers to participation in elections, with limited investment. In countless cases, election modernization—through policies like automatic voter registration, vote centers, and early voting—has been shown to boost voter turnout while reducing inefficiencies and costs. Yet on a national level, the debate over who votes and how elections are run remains highly divisive.
Despite the national picture, at the state level, more and more conservative leaders are championing reforms that support American voters. It is not yet clear whether simplifying our democracy will become a true bipartisan cause, though it is clear that conservative voters and politicians have strong reasons to support pro-democracy policies. And in a nation where elections are so decentralized, elected officials in red states ought to follow the lead of other conservative trailblazers and recognize that helping Americans vote need not be work left only to Democrats.
Michael Auslen is a second-year MPP student at HKS and Editor-in-Chief of the Kennedy School Review. He previously was a journalist covering Florida state government, public policy, and the 2016 election for the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. His reporting has also appeared in USA Today, Dow Jones Newswire, and the Indianapolis Star. Originally from Denver, Michael graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism and political science.
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