Which States Could Adopt Automatic Voter Registration Next?

Several states may soon follow California and Oregon's lead, but almost all of them are Democratic-led.
by | October 22, 2015
In New Jersey, a bill to automatically register people to vote awaits a decision from Gov. Chris Christie, center. (AP/Mel Evans)

If Americans needed any further proof that voting itself has become a partisan battleground, look no further than proposals calling for automatic voter registration.

California this month enacted a law that will automatically register people to vote when they get or renew a driver's license or state identification card from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), following the example set by Oregon several months ago. Over time, this could bring most of the 6.6 million Californians who are eligible but not yet registered onto the voting rolls. Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state and sponsor of the measure, calls it potentially the largest voter registration drive in U.S. history.

Other states could soon follow.

Legislators have introduced automatic voter registration bills in 16 additional states, including Hawaii, Illinois and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia. New Jersey lawmakers approved a package that includes automatic voter registration in June. Republican Gov. Chris Christie hasn't acted on it, but he's made his opposition clear.

"The current process creates an unnecessary barrier for citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote," said state Sen. Andy Manar, a sponsor of the Illinois measure. "And it's an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars."

The states where bills have seen real movement, however, are all blue states. In states where Republicans control the legislature  -- including Georgia, South Carolina and Texas -- measures have mostly languished in committee.

Supporters argue that the real reason for  Republican opposition is the party's worry that automatic registration would boost the number of poor and young voters -- groups that favor Democrats. But Republicans complain that automatically registering people to vote based on their DMV status will result in more fraud because, for example, teens still too young to vote and undocumented immigrants get driver's licenses.

In New Jersey, more than 85 percent of eligible citizens are already registered to vote. During a radio appearance in June, Gov. Christie said that, "there's no question in my mind that there are some advocates of this who are looking to increase the opportunities for voter fraud. That's not democracy either."

Studies have shown, however, that voter fraud seldom happens. Proponents of automatic voter registration say that governments have a responsibility to ensure eligible citizens have the opportunity to exercise the franchise, without unnecessary hurdles.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signing the automatic voter registration bill into law. (AP/Don Ryan)

Supporters of the idea are currently collecting signatures in Alaska to put it on the ballot next year. If Christie ultimately vetoes the New Jersey package, a ballot measure may be likely there as well.

"It's not just an election modernization reform, it's a shifting of responsibilty for who populates the rolls," said Katrina Gamble, director of civic engagement and politics at the Center for Popular Democracy. "Even before Oregon, people saw automatic voter registration as the most tranformative reform that we can move that would bring a huge number of people onto the rolls."

Huge numbers of eligible citizens aren't registered to vote. In addition to the nearly 7 million Californians, there are 2.3 million such people in Illinois and there were 300,000 in Oregon.

"If you look across the country, there are at least 50 million people who are eligible but not registered to vote," said Jonathan Brater, counsel for the democracy program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. "We see year after year that registration is one of the biggest obstacles to participation."

Other states might explore other models, like using agencies other than the DMV to find potential voters. If the Alaska initiative passes next year, the state will find potential voters through its Permanent Fund, which pays dividends to residents based on oil revenues.

Regardless of the database that's used, automatic registration has the potential to be more accurate than the current approach, which in many places still means relying on paper forms. It should also save money. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, only Arizona and Washington offered online registration. Earlier this month, Vermont became the 26th state to allow voters to register online. Going paper-free saves states at least 50 cents on every registration.

It's in part for that reason that Republican legislators in states including Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma have supported online registration. Supporters of automatic voter registration hope that promises of savings might bring GOP lawmakers around to supporting things like registration through the DMV, too.

So far, that's not happening.

In fact, the way that high-profile Democrats running for president have embraced the idea seems to be driving Republicans away. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced an automatic voter registration bill in Congress, and Hillary Clinton supported the idea during a speech earlier this year in which she castigated the GOP for trying to "disempower and disenfranchise young people, poor people, people with disabilities and people of color," through voter ID requirements and attacks on early voting.

Clinton's speech, according to polling, cost automatic voter registration support among Republican voters. A majority of Republicans (53 percent) supported the idea when Oregon passed its law in March, but after Clinton gave her speech in June, GOP support dropped to 38 percent. When survey respondents were told Clinton backed the idea, their support plummeted further, to 28 percent.