Washington, D.C. residents may soon be registered to vote automatically through the Department of Motor Vehicles if a D.C. Council bill passed unanimously Nov. 1 becomes law.
In order for this bill to take effect for the next election cycle, the Automatic Voter Registration Amendment must be signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and undergo a congressional 30-day review period. According to federal law, Congress must review all bills passed by the D.C. Council.
Under the automatic voter registration system, D.C. residents would automatically be registered to vote when they receive a driver’s license or government-issued ID from the DMV. The system is automatic but not mandatory. Residents would have the option to opt out of the voting rolls by filling out a Board of Elections form.
Councilmember and Chair of the D.C. Democratic Party Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said automatic voter registration would likely increase voter participation in the District.
“As an elected official and Chair of the D.C. Democratic Party, I’m pleased that we are able to expand voting opportunities for D.C. residents while also maintaining a more accurate voters list which will produce more accurate and likely higher turnout percentages,” Bonds wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Should the bill become law, D.C. would join five states with automatic voter registration systems — Connecticut, Oregon, California, Vermont and West Virginia. Oregon was the first state to pass automatic voter registration in 2015.
Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said the bill is a major reform of the voting system.
“Voting is the bedrock of our democracy, so it is vital that the government do all it can to make voting as accessible as possible,” McDuffie wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The passing of the Automatic Voter Registration Amendment Act does just that and puts the District of Columbia at the forefront of election reform nationally.”
McDuffie also said automatic voter registration measures would particularly benefit D.C. residents in isolated or temporary living conditions.
“The data tells us that automatic voter registration has the highest impact among traditionally marginalized communities as well as transient communities, like students,” McDuffie said.
The bill was first introduced by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) in May 2015, and is backed by Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Bonds and former Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large).
The first reading vote of the bill Oct. 11 also saw unanimous approval from the council.
According to the D.C. Board of Elections, 478,093 residents were registered to vote as of Oct. 31. Roughly 76 percent of voters in the District were registered as Democrats, 6 percent as Republicans and 16 percent as Independent.
Of these registered voters, only 60.4 percent, or 286,403, of District residents actually cast their ballots in the November election.
GU Votes co-founder Bethan Saunders (SFS ’17), whose organization helped over 1,600 Georgetown students vote and accompanied them to the polls on Tuesday’s Election Day, said automatic voter registration is a positive step for voting rights activists.
“As someone who has been deeply involved in voter registration initiatives across the country, the passage of automatic registration in D.C. is a huge win for our movement,” Saunders said. “Automatic registration can dramatically increase registration rates and has been approved in five states, with dozens more following suit.”
Saunders added that automatic voter registration goes beyond increasing registration rates.
“It also has the potential to boost registration rates for previously marginalized voter groups, clean up the rolls, save money, make voting more convenient and reduce the potential for voter fraud,” Saunders said. “I very much hope that this becomes the new norm in America, as voting needs to be an automatic and accessible right for all Americans.”
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