Washington • The Democratic National Party is excited about Utah’s new pilot project on same-day voter registration — even if it does help the opposition party sign up new voters in the GOP-dominated state.
The Legislature passed a measure this session to allow counties and municipalities to have same-day registration in the next three years, a move that dovetails with Democratic efforts nationwide to increase access to the polls for Americans.
Pratt Wiley, the Democrats’ national director of voter expansion, acknowledges that in deep-red Utah, the program could "absolutely" help Republicans.
"Our job is to make sure we’re working so that everyone votes," Wiley said this week, "not to make sure that Obama voters vote, not to make sure that Democrats vote; it’s to make sure that everyone votes. And so we recognize that this can help Republicans — especially in a state like Utah, it can help Republicans probably in a way that it doesn’t in some swing states."
Over the past few years, the focus of the DNC and some outside groups has shifted from the reactionary response to voter access — such as Election Day lawsuits — to a more proactive approach to ensuring that polls are open to all qualified residents. In Utah currently, a resident, for example, must register to vote two weeks before an election. But the new bill, once signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, would allow a county or city to let that person register and cast a provisional ballot on the same day. Herbert’s office has yet to receive the bill but has expressed no opposition.
Although the DNC didn’t coordinate with the Utah bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, the measure parallels a voter-expansion project that seeks to educate voters and election administrators on voting rights and to pass legislation to expand access.
"The end goal is actually really simple: It’s to make sure that every eligible voter can register, every registered voter can vote and every vote is accurately counted," says Wiley. "It’s to expand access until every citizen has had [his or her] voice heard."
Nearly 1.5 million Utahns are registered voters, while another estimated 500,000 eligible voters are not on voter rolls, according to state records and Census data. About 44 percent of the registered voters are unaffiliated with any party, 44 percent are registered Republicans and less than 10 percent are registered Democrats.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans says the pilot program is a good test to see if same-day registration works.
"Any measures that will help improve voter turnout, I think we should all be supportive," he said.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, a Democrat, has supported same-day registration, noting that in previous years, her staff has expended too much time rejecting folks who cast provisional ballots and filled out the paperwork because they weren’t already registered in the system.
And she doesn’t mind if the new effort helps the GOP.
"I just want people to have access," Swensen said Wednesday. "It could very well [do so]; more people are inclined to vote Republican in the state of Utah than Democrat. Regardless, it’s about accessibility. It’s not trying to prevent certain people from participating; it’s to get everyone and anyone who is eligible."
Swensen says she hopes to allow same-day registration in the state’s most populous county when the bill becomes law.
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