PD Editorial: Make voting a right, not a privilege

California is no slouch at empowering citizens to become full participants in a competitive democracy. Yet room for improvement remains. Lawmakers should monitor what’s going on to the north. Under a new Oregon law, all eligible Oregonians who get a driver’s license or state identification card through the Department of Motor Vehicles automatically will be registered to vote. No longer will “I forgot to register” be an excuse for not voting there.

Oregon is the first state in the nation to take this approach, and it’s a refreshing change from the march of disenfranchisement underway in much of the country. It has made plain a fundamental schism in electoral philosophies.

A conservative view holds voting as a privilege, something that must be earned. Republican-controlled legislatures therefore erect barriers to voting such as requiring ID cards and shortening the time polls are open. They do so in the name of combating rare or non-existent voter fraud, reasoning that preventing hundreds or thousands of people from voting is worth keeping one or two from maybe cheating. Some people might have to work a little harder than others, but the work makes the privilege of participation all the sweeter.

A progressive view holds voting as a right guaranteed to all adult citizens by the Constitution. The government’s job is not to make voting difficult but to encourage as many people as possible to cast ballots because the more people who vote, the better government will reflect the will of the people.

In Oregon, that means near-universal voter registration and vote-by-mail. In California, it has meant easy access to absentee ballots and measures to encourage competitive electoral districts that make for compellingly interesting races.

Oregon’s one-two punch of motor voter and universal vote-by-mail ensures that most eligible adults will receive a ballot. Candidates risk ignoring groups with historically low voter registration rates at their own peril. California is not quite there, and it should watch to see how Oregon’s motor-voter law fares.

Some Oregonians still will not be registered. Officials estimate the new law will register 300,000 of 800,000 eligible voters who aren’t now registered. The others don’t have driver’s licenses or state ID cards. Other forms of voter outreach will continue.

There are reasonable exceptions to who may register, too. Drivers must present proof of citizenship, thereby ensuring non-citizens do not register. Felons serving time may not vote. And people may opt-out if they truly wish to divorce themselves from the electoral process rather than simply not return a ballot.

That last part is important. Voting is a right, but so is not voting. President Barack Obama recently suggested that mandatory voting might be a good model - at least before his staff walked it back. That runs contrary to the basic notion of individual liberty in America.

Californians deserve an environment in which everyone who can legally vote has the opportunity to do so. Public policy is replete with provisions that benefit one group or another because those groups vote. Elected officials will find it more difficult to ignore historically disenfranchised groups when they might well cast ballots against them next time around.

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