Elections officials and activists across the country are celebrating National Voter Registration Day Tuesday. But the practice of signing up voters has a complicated history.
For many campaigners and volunteers, National Voter Registration Day is a golden opportunity. But University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald can’t stand it, saying voter registration laws are politically motivated, and have little practical use. McDonald says since the 1800s, politicians have used registration laws as a tool of voter suppression.
“The reason we have voter registration laws today, the history of them is that at some point in time, someone wanted to keep a group of people from voting,” he said.
Massachusetts first implemented the practice in 1800, as part of a political rivalry between rural residents and city dwellers. Later, voter registration laws became part and parcel of the disenfranchisement of African-American voters during Jim Crow.
“In the South it was whites that were trying to suppress the votes of blacks through voter registration. And today we have this new iteration where again persons of color seem to be targeted,” McDonald said.
Proponents of voter registration laws argue the practice prevents fraud. But McDonald says the implementation is often biased, targeting specific groups for political gain. McDonald believes lawmakers should remove barriers to the ballot box by implementing automatic registration, or by ending the practice entirely.