It’s time to make voting easier, not harder
by Terry Ao Minnis
There’s been a lot of talk already about the importance of Asian American voters during this tumultuous 2016 election cycle. And while we have seen increased excitement and voter engagement by Asian Americans, the community has yet to realize its full potential. Despite doubling the number of voters in just over a decade, we still see Asian American voter registration and turnout rates lag behind white voters by 15–20%, election after election. Once registered, however, our community turns out to vote at similar rates to white voters. Making the voter registration process accessible to Asian Americans should go a long way toward optimizing the community’s political voice.
Last week, senior congressional lawmakers took a positive first step in expanding accessibility to all eligible people in the voter registration process by introducing the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016. The effort, led by Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), modernizes the voter registration process to respond to the changing landscape of our society, including taking advantage of technology.
The bill would modernize the voter registration system in a number of ways.
First, it would automatically register a citizen when interacting with a government agency — for example, to get a driver’s license, apply for public services, apply for a license for a firearm, register for classes at a public university, or when becoming a naturalized citizen — unless that citizen affirmatively declines to be registered.
Secondly, the bill provides a voter the opportunity to correct their registration information at the polling place and cast a regular ballot in that election.
Finally, the bill requires states to provide online voter registration services that would allow citizens to register, make corrections, and designate political party affiliation online, as well as cancel registration or decline automatic registration. These modernizing steps could go a long way toward ensuring all eligible persons are registered.
But the modernizing components are not enough on their own. The bill also recognizes the key need for public education to complement an automatic voter registration system. Without a public education campaign, many people will be registered without necessarily knowing why it’s important to vote, where and when to vote, and what rights they have at the polls. It is also important, particularly for Asian American voters, that this education be done in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate to meet the needs of the most marginalized communities and that encourages them to participate in our democratic process.
The bill also takes strong steps forward in trying to protect ineligible persons who may accidentally get added to the voter rolls through no fault of their own. For certain ineligible persons, being registered to vote could have negative consequences that permanently impact their lives. For example, a non-citizen who is accidentally added to the rolls could face deportation or the inability to ever become a citizen. The bill provides protections for errors in registration and notes that an individual shall not be prosecuted or adversely affected in immigration-related proceedings based on erroneous automatic voter registration under this bill.
Ensuring protections for innocent, ineligible persons who get accidentally caught up in this process is of paramount importance to Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 is a good starting point to increase access to voter registration for all eligible persons, and we look forward to working with the Members toward a final bill that robustly protects individuals from administrative errors and meets the needs of all communities.