File photo by Joshua Lott, Getty Images

Editorial: An automatic yes to improve motor voter

You don’t have to be a seasoned pollster to know the way you phrase a question can shape the response.

If you’re craving chocolate cake at a restaurant, you might say to a friend, “We’re getting dessert, right?”

You know that’s more likely to get a yes than asking, “Do you want dessert?”

Asking a question affirmatively increases the likelihood of an affirmative response. That’s the thought behind a bill in the state Senate that would tweak the “motor voter” law that allows those applying for or renewing driver’s licenses or state ID cards at the Department of Motor Vehicles to register to vote.


We’re all for a measure that could help bring down from 2 million the number of U.S. citizens in Illinois who are eligible but unregistered to vote. Additionally, the 13 percent of Illinoisans who move each year — about 500,000 in Cook County alone — could be more likely to update their voter registration under the proposed change.

Currently, those getting new licenses or IDs are asked if they want to register, or if they want their voter registration updated for address changes. If they say yes, that’s known as opting in.

Under the bill proposed by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Chicago, applicants would be notified they’re being registered but can opt out — a subtle but important change in procedure.

No extra forms would be needed. “The only change is the default,” Biss said. “It’s easy to be registered. It’s equally easy to not be registered. You say ‘No thanks.’”

In a democracy, government should make it as easy as possible to vote. Plain and simple. This is a step in that direction, along with online registration and Election Day registration.

This measure, if it becomes law, would likely draw more young and disadvantaged adults to register to vote, says University of Florida political science professor Michael P. McDonald, who has researched elections and methodology. Their voices are as important as any other voter’s.

Non-citizens would need to proceed with caution at the DMV, as they must now. By law, DMV workers are not allowed to ask anyone about citizenship status, but the signature form they must sign warns that only U.S. citizens can register and includes a box that they must check to affirm they are citizens. Undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be affected because their licenses restrict voter registration.

The measure doesn’t guarantee better voter turnout on Election Day. Canada’s turnout rates dipped after implementing a similar law in the 1990s, McDonald said. But making registration automatic unless someone opts out could lead to a 1 or 2 percent bump in voter turnout, he said.

That doesn’t sound like much. But as he said, it beats zero.

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