Automatic Voter Registration Goes Beyond the DMV

The most recent states to adopt the practice are expanding it to agencies that serve disenfranchised populations, including the poor and disabled.
by | April 17, 2018
People in line.
People stand in line at a social services agency. (David Kidd)

New Jersey on Tuesday became the 12th state, plus the District of Columbia, to enact an automatic voter registration law, which is intended to increase participation in elections.

While automatic voter registration (AVR) is itself a new trend -- first adopted in Oregon in 2015 -- New Jersey's law represents a new twist: It allows the practice to extend beyond the DMV. 

Automatic voter registration typically happens when people apply for or renew a driver's license. But four of the last five laws of this kind either require or open the door for people to be automatically registered to vote when they interact with government in other ways.

“At its core, it’s a voting rights question,” says Maryland Del. Eric Luedtke, who sponsored the legislation in his state, which became law earlier this month. “The registration process is a barrier to people exercising their right to vote so we’re trying to make it easier.”

In Maryland, people will soon be automatically registered to vote -- unless they opt out -- when they interact with any local social services agency, the state health benefits exchange or the Mobility Certification Office, which provides paratransit benefits for people with disabilities.

“Not everybody has a driver’s license," says Luedtke. "If you only register voters at the MVA [Motor Vehicle Administration], you’re missing a lot of people.”

Illinois is the only other state that requires AVR at agencies besides the DMV. New Jersey and Rhode Island, meanwhile, have allowed for its expansion to other agencies but left the decision up to election officials to decide if it's feasible.

“The ability to implement this at a DMV is often much more doable right off the bat," says Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "I think it’s smart for a state like New Jersey to require an assessment of their other agencies before they decide whether or not they can implement it there."

Maryland is unusual in that it already had a law requiring agencies to collect citizen information electronically. Other states, however, may find that agencies outside the DMV still collect handwritten information and can't switch quickly to an automatic voter registration system.

Automatic voter registration is expected to expand voter rolls. In Maryland, 400,000 people are estimated to register because of the new law, according to Maryland Working Families, a nonprofit that advocated for it.

According to a study of Oregon’s experience published by the liberal Center for American Progress, voters who registered through AVR tended to be younger, more suburban than urban, likelier to live in low- and middle-income areas, more likely to live in lower-education areas and more likely to live in racially diverse areas.

Some, however, are skeptical that bigger voter rolls will lead to more voter turnout.

“The challenge is not getting voters registered, it's getting them to turn out, especially for noncompetitive primary and off-year elections, and presidential races with candidates who do not inspire enthusiasm,” Eric L. Davis, an emeritus professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont, told Governing last year.

While the expansion of automatic voter registration to reach disenfranchised groups is new, federal law already required a broad range of agencies to help register people to vote for much the same reason. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, commonly referred to as the "Motor Voter" law because it requires motor vehicle offices to offer voter registration services. Congress also included a provision to ensure that low-income people who were less likely to get driver's licenses still had voter registration opportunities. In recent years, voting rights groups have sometimes sued states on the grounds that public assistance agencies were not informing citizens about their voter registration rights.

The other states that have either implemented or are in the process of implementing automatic voter registration are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

This year, 20 states have introduced bills to implement or expand automatic voter registration, and another eight states had bills carry over from last year, according to the Brennan Center. In Nevada, voters will decide whether to adopt automatic voter registration in November.