The Case for Automatic Voter Registration

Increasing voter turnout in the U.S. will mean addressing the obstacles that keep people from participating at each step of the process.  Currently in most U.S. states the first hurdle is getting registered to vote. Increasing voter registration is often difficult because it has to happen months before an election when there is less excitement and less motivation to take action. This may seem like an inevitable challenge of the democratic process but the truth is that voter registration is only an impediment to participation because most places require people to take action and opt in to registering. Making the process of voter registration automatic removes the first obstacle to voting, facilitates increased participation, and can help make sure that the voter rolls are more accurate and current.

The process of automatic voter registration (AVR) is fairly simple and basically what it sounds like; a person is automatically registered to vote when they apply for a driver’s license, or depending on the state, complete other state paperwork. In AVR states, when someone fills in the paperwork to get a license their information goes directly from the DMV to the election office and then they are registered as a voter unless they take steps to opt out. As of this summer, 10 states and DC have some form of AVR.

Oregon was the first state to implement AVR. It was implemented in 2016 and so far the results have been promising. Over 225,000 people were automatically registered to vote using the new system and about 43% of those people voted in the next election. That is significantly lower than the states normal percentage of registered voters who vote; usually the turnout of registered voters in Oregon is over 80%. But it’s important to remember that these newly registered voters brought onto the voter rolls through AVR are made up of both people who would have registered on their own and those would not have. The results suggest that many of those people who would not have put in the effort to register and who only ended up registered because of the automatic system did end up voting. In 2016 Oregon had over 2 million ballots cast, the highest number ever in a presidential election in that state, and the nearly 100,000 automatically registered voters who participated were part of that record.

The 2016 election in Oregon also differed from previous elections in other interesting ways. The percentage of people of color and young people who voted was significantly higher among the automatically registered voters than among voters who had to opt-in. And the new system appears to have increased the income diversity of Oregon voters, drawing more voters from lower income levels. So far Oregon’s is the only presidential level election where AVR has been used and as more states implement the system there will be more data to analyze how it’s working.

Though voter fraud is not a significant problem in the U.S., for those concerned about the issue and its potential impact on our election, AVR goes a long way toward reducing the chances of voter fraud.  The U.S. is one of only a few democracies in the world where the government leaves the responsibility for registering voters to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, political parties, and election officials.  This has left voter rolls across the country incomplete and inaccurate.  Since AVR leads to cleaner voter rolls which can help reduce voter fraud, theoretically it would make sense for those most concerned about potential voter fraud to support it.