Providing voter registration forms to new renters is a practical, straightforward measure to increase voter participation.

Since the birth of the U.S., Americans have fought to expand the franchise to the near-universal suffrage of adult citizens. But our arcane system of registration stands as one of the biggest barriers to voter participation.

Did you know that almost 50 million eligible voters could not cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election simply because they weren’t registered? In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of eligible voters who are not registered to vote is three times greater than the number of registered voters who choose to stay home and not participate.

The impact of opt-in registration disproportionately and negatively impacts young and first-time voters, highly mobile voters (including students and military families), lower-income voters and voters of color.

The U.S. is unique in the modern, industrialized world in requiring this two-step process: first, registration, then casting a ballot. In almost every other modern democracy, the burden for registration rests upon the government — not the individual. The voter merely has to show up.

Registration has deep roots in efforts to stifle participation. It turns out that registration began after the Civil War, when African-American men were enfranchised under the 15th Amendment. And, of course, women in those times were pushing for full and equal citizenship rights. Up until that point, there was no such thing as voter registration. Thus, mandatory registration was an early tool not to enhance democracy, but to deny it.

As chair of the Minneapolis City Council’s Elections & Rules Committee, I am charged with improving voter turnout and engagement. That’s why I introduced an ordinance aimed at supporting new, first-time and highly mobile voting populations by requiring that building owners and landlords provide voter registration forms to their tenants. This measure is a practical, straightforward approach to increase the number of registered voters among populations that, historically, have been denied access to the ballot box due to registration challenges.

Moreover, many young people, particularly students, move almost annually, and with each move they are required to re-register to vote. With the stresses of moving, compounded by external stimuli from school to jobs, registering to vote can easily go overlooked. Why would we not enact a simple proposal to knock these unnecessary hurdles down?

In response to my proposal, Cam Winton — a former mayoral candidate and conservative politico — criticized the measure on practical and philosophical grounds (“Minneapolis proposal for apartments is over the top,” July 14). He argues that the increased burden to building owners and landlords of merely handing new tenants a registration form would somehow cause our housing stock to be less affordable.

Had Winton spoken with me, he would have known that the measure would be of little to no burden on landlords. The tentative plan is for the city to provide voter registration forms to landlords when they renew their licenses. All they would have to do is pass them on to new tenants. That’s it! There would be no obligation to collect or mail in voter registration forms, and once the form had been handed over, presumably along with a lease and other new-tenant information, the building owner or landlord would be done. How this simple “pass on” requirement would increase rents is beyond me.

Government exists to improve people’s lives, and this proposal would make it easier for the half of our city’s residents who rent to participate in our democracy. Winton suggests that my efforts to make voting easier send a message that Minneapolis residents are helpless. To the contrary, my goal is to empower voters. We want everyone — regardless of their background or age — to proudly vote on Election Day. We want to reduce barriers to civic participation. Our city aspires to be as inclusive and as inviting as possible to all of our neighbors.

As the proposal is at the very early stages, all input and debate is welcome.


Jacob Frey is a member of the Minneapolis City Council.