Hawaii could become the national leader in increasing voter registration if proposals before the Legislature become law.

Local lawmakers are considering four bills that would compel U.S. citizens to register to vote.

If any of the bills are approved, Hawaii would be the first state in the country to employ mandatory voter registration tactics, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Currently, all states are required to offer people the option of registering to vote when they apply for a license.

Three proposed bills — two in the House and one in the Senate — would marry voter registration with obtaining a driver’s license or state ID. Two of the bills would make it mandatory to register to vote when applying. The other would make voter registration a requirement to get a license or ID.

A fourth bill, introduced in the Senate, would enact universal registration, requiring all citizens eligible to vote to register by the first Tuesday in January in federal election years, or affirmatively decline to register. Failure to do so would result in a fine and render the individual ineligible for state-sponsored benefits or jobs.

Sen. Les Ihara, who introduced the universal registration bill, did so “By Request,” which indicates that he doesn’t necessarily endorse the measure but that he had constituents who asked him to present it.

Ihara said he isn’t sure such sweeping legislation is right for the state.

“Where there are people who are completely ignorant and inattentive and really are not interested and don’t have the information at all for elections, I’m not certain I want to encourage them to vote,” Ihara told Civil Beat. “So that is a concern.”

Ihara said he is more comfortable with the reach of the the driver’s license/ID bills.

“These are citizens or residents who are doing something with government,” Ihara said. “They’re actually getting some benefits from government. They’re getting a driver’s license or state ID and so forth and so the idea there is that you’re actually using government services and we’d like to have the expectation that you participate in our government. So there’s more of a rational connection there in having a reciprocal, where we provide services and they in turn be informed enough hopefully to vote.”

National Voter Registration Act

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act – also known as the Motor Voter Act – into law. The legislation called on state governments to give voters the option to register to vote in federal elections when they apply for or renew a driver’s license or apply for social services.

The act, according to the United States Elections Assistance Commission, helped to increase voter registration by 1.82 percent between the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. The election commission’s report, “The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993” states that the percentage of registered voters in 1996 reached an all-time high, at 72.77 percent.

But Hawaii still struggles to entice citizens to register.

“I think we’re still ranked at the bottom,” Ihara told Civil Beat. “What needs to happen is more citizen engagement in issues that effect their daily lives. Most people are effected by government and there is a way that they can be aware of it, and then have a relationship with government.

For the 2010 general election, Hawaii registered 690,748 voters. The Census pegs Hawaii’s population over the age of 18 at 1,004,822. This means the state registered roughly 69 percent of its adults. Of that group, 56 percent voted. That means that fewer than 40 percent of adults participated in the election.

Nikki Love, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, an open government group, testified on HB 48, the bill requiring driver’s license applicants to be simultaneously registered to vote.

“Common Cause Hawaii strongly supports HB 48,” Love wrote in her testimony. “Our current voter registration method is archaic and burdensome, and unnecessarily excludes many eligible voters from participating in our democracy.”

Regarding the universal registration bill, she told Civil Beat Common Cause does not yet have a stance on the bill. But, in terms of the fee for failure to register, she acknowledged there may be better ways to motivate the public.

“I don’t think the idea of fines will be well received by the general public – people don’t want to be forced into it,” Love wrote in an e-mail. “But we should definitely make it easier and more convenient to get into the voter rolls and participate. We can bring down the existing arbitrary barriers to voting by enacting reforms like election day registration, online registration, and automatic registration.”

Universal Registration Controversial

Ihara and Love aren’t the only ones with questions about universal registration.

Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund gave a speech in January 2010, where he spoke of the problems with universal registration. Fund says mandatory registration is a tactic employed by the left to get more votes. (Watch his comments in the video below.)

Fund said:

“What do liberals do when they lose elections? They change the rules. In January, (U.S. Sen.) Chuck Schumer and (U.S. Rep.) Barney Frank will propose universal voter registration. What is universal voter registration? It means all of the state laws on elections will be overridden by a federal mandate. The feds will tell the states, take everyone on every list of welfare recipients you have, take everyone on every list of unemployed you have, take everyone on every list of property owners, take everyone on every list of driver’s license holders, and register them to vote regardless of whether they want to be. And then – oh and by the way, there will be felon re-enfranchisement too – at that point you have destroyed the integrity of the registration process.”

It should be noted that Rep. Frank denied that he would introduce any universal registration bill. He told The Hill, “They (the right-wing) begin with an absolute falsehood – John Fund’s claim that I plan to introduce universal voter legislation, a claim for which there is no basis whatsoever. It is not a misinterpretation, it is not a quote out of context, it is not a misunderstanding – it is a lie. Period.”

No bills were introduced in the 2010 Congress relating to universal registration.

Universal registration has not fared well in state Legislatures in the past. Several such bills introduced in New York and California and other states failed in 2010.

Driver’s license voter registration bills have also failed.

The 2010 Hawaii Legislature killed three bills nearly identical to three of the current bills. HB 1866, SB 2131 and SB 648 never made it to either floor for a vote.

HB 48, which Common Cause and Ihara both support, may be headed for a similar fate. It was deferred in committee Jan. 31

Rep. Karl Rhoads, who introduced the bill, told Civil Beat, “As far as I know, it’s dead.”

But the three others still have life.

SB 1111, an identical bill to HB 48, has been referred to the Public Safety, Government Operations, and Military Affairs committee and the Judiciary and Labor committee. It is awaiting a hearing.

SB 208, the universal registration bill, has also been referred to the Judiciary and Labor committee. It too waits on a hearing.

Finally, HB 1177 is waiting to be heard by three committees.