Utah legislators gave an early and emphatic go-ahead for a bill that would shift the burden of registering to vote from residents to the state, which has resulted in ballooning voter rolls in states that led the way on the issue.
If SB112 were in place in 2016, about 300,000 people who updated or received a new driver license from the state would have been registered to vote unless they opted out, according to Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch.
“Perhaps they did it on purpose or perhaps they just missed it,” Hatch said, adding that 600,000 people did check the box to register at the Utah Driver License Division.
Under the bill, as well as identical legislation in the House, voters could opt not to be registered when updating or receiving a new driver license at the division. They would be given a second chance to stay off voter rolls when they receive mail from the county clerk notifying them of their status.
There are also provisions for voters who are concerned about their privacy to keep their records confidential, advocates said.
The bill passed unanimously out of a Senate committee, a big change given a similar bill last year stalled in the Senate before the end of session. The lieutenant governor supports the bill, along with the American Civil Liberties of Utah, League of Women Voters and 28 of 29 county clerks.
Other states’ voter rolls swelled with automatic registration. Now a Republican senator wants to see the same happen in Utah.
For years, it’s been up to eligible voters to register to vote ahead of elections. Two Republicans are hoping Utah will make a seemingly small change that has had a massive impact on swelling the ranks of registered voters in other states.
Two bills this year — SB112 and HB67 — would require the state to register a person to vote automatically when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles. After the interaction, the person would be registered to vote unless they chose to opt out.
That may seem like a subtle change, as eligible voters already can register at the DMV. But it led to the registration of hundreds of thousands of people who were eligible but not registered to vote in states that have already passed the law.
“It’s a constitutional right to vote,” said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork. “Right now, [the process is] onerous. It has mistakes.”
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, sponsored an identical bill in the House.
Nine other states have passed the legislation in recent years, following Oregon’s lead. Dozens more introduced legislation last year, including Utah. HB159 passed the Utah House last session but didn’t pass the Senate before a final deadline.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who co-sponsored last year’s bill, said he felt the proposal has a good chance this time around.
“It usually takes a bit of education and time,” Adams said Thursday. “When you allow more people to participate, the better the outcomes usually are.”
Utah’s county clerks support the change, and Henderson said there are no estimates on how many voters would be registered if the bill passes.
Oregon watched its voter roll increase by nearly 400,000 in the first year and a half after its law took effect. That resulted in far more people participating in its recent elections.
That state overcame fears from Republicans that the law would favor Democrats. States that are controlled by Republicans and by Democrats have adopted automatic registration in recent years. Many of those debating the law are Republican-controlled.
“We’ve got 29 county clerks, all but one are Republicans and they universally endorsed and support the bill,” said Lincoln Shurtz, a lobbyist for the Utah Association of Counties. “Many states where it’s been done have been Republican states.”