Alabama State House

The Alabama State House in Montgomery.

Alabama residents may soon have the opportunity to register to vote without even thinking about it.

A bill before the Alabama Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Prince Chestnutt, D-Selma, would create automatic voter registration when those eligible to vote go to receive or renew their driver’s licenses, unless the person opts out.

Currently, people have the option to register, but it requires a separate opt-in process.

“I think if we can make things more convenient for people to vote, we should do that.” Chestnutt said.

Secretary of State John Merrill, whose office oversees voting operations in the state, thinks automatic voter registration is unnecessary because, he says, the current system has been so successful.

“We don’t need automatic voter registration in Alabama,” John Merrill said. “We have broken every record in the state in voter registration and voter participation.”

Merrill said since he took office, more than 1.2 million Alabamians have registered to vote. According to his office’s website, around 350,000 Alabamians registered between the 2012 election and the 2016 election.

The bill was assigned in April to the House Committee on Constitutions, Campaigns and Elections, which has taken no action.

Those supporting the bill say the simpler the voting process can be made, the better.

“The only decision a voter should have to make about voting is to vote,” Dev Wakeley said.

Wakeley, who has studied automatic voter registration as a policy analyst at Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for people living in poverty, said the process is “really inexpensive, basically no trouble and increases access to democracy.”

Diann Baldwin, who was waiting at the driver’s license office at the state troopers post in Jacksonville and an active voter who has been in Alabama for about two years, remembers automatic voter registration being easier for the people in Georgia. Baldwin grew up in Alabama before moving to Florida, then Georgia and back to Alabama. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Georgia became the second state to implement automatic voter registration in September 2016.

Because the process is for anyone getting or renewing  a driver’s license, several, including Natalie Tennant, manager of state advocacy at the Brennan Center, have called it a “nonpartisan policy.”

“It increased voter registration no matter where it’s been implemented, whether a red state, blue state or purple state,” Tennant said.

More voter registration, though is not necessarily a guarantee for more voter participation. Jexie Ball III, who was waiting at the driver’s license office at the state troopers post in Jacksonville on Monday, said he is registered but does not vote because of time.

“If voting is as important as they say it is, why don’t they give us the day off work to go vote?” Ball said.

Tennant said the center is still studying voter participation results from automatic voter registration, but according to the center’s report on automatic voter registration, Washington, D.C. and the seven states that have implemented automatic voter registration, have seen increases in registration ranging from 9 percent to 94 percent.

“If voting is truly a right, like we say it is and not a privilege, we should treat it as such,” Chestnutt said.

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