Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

A Voting Reform We Need Right Now: Automatic Registration

Someday Congress may mandate it, but there's nothing to keep states from moving on their own.

I Voted sticker on a shirt.
(Shutterstock)
Eighteen percent of Americans who were eligible to vote in the November 2016 general election but did not cast ballots cited issues with registering to vote as their main impediment, according to the Census Bureau. At a time when citizens are coming to expect a more user-friendly, seamless experience in their interactions with government at all levels, there is an ideal pathway for knocking down a barrier that has kept so many voting-eligible citizens away from the polls: automatic voter registration.

A mandate for states to implement automatic voter registration (AVR) is a marquee provision of H.R. 1, congressional Democrats' sweeping package of political and campaign reforms. While the prospects for enactment of H.R. 1 are dim in the current divided Congress -- the legislation has passed the Democratic-controlled House but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that it will not get a vote in that Republican-controlled chamber -- there is nothing in federal law that prevents states from implementing AVR on their own.

Indeed, 15 states and the District of Columbia have already put some form of AVR in place, turning registering to vote or updating an existing registration into an automatic process when a person interacts with a public agency, typically a motor-vehicle department, unless the person chooses affirmatively to opt out.

AVR builds on the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Known as the "motor voter" law, NVRA required most states to allow citizens to register to vote when applying for or renewing a driver's license. Making the process an automatic procedure, as AVR does, taps into the fact that many voters do not actively think about their voter registration and eligibility status and also often have misconceptions about how the system works.

"About one in three voters think that their voter registration just automatically magically updates when they move. It does not," David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, noted in a 2013 presentation on the subject. "And then adding to the confusion, voters don't realize that they can update their information in a motor-vehicles agency when they're going to update their driver's license." AVR takes much of the burden of keeping voting information updated off of the shoulders of registrants. But this can only happen if the process is perfectly woven into existing licensing processes or other interactions with state offices.

That may sound like a tall order, but that isn't necessarily the case. Oregon, for example, has demonstrated that significant gains can come at manageable costs. It AVR system, implemented in early 2016, cost just a little over $530,000, $200,000 of which was for a one-time IT upgrade. Eligible but unregistered voters are now identified through the state's Department of Motor Vehicles' databases. They are notified by mail that they will be added to the voter registry, but can opt out within 21 days by returning a postcard to the state's election authorities.

The new system had a quick and significant impact on voting in Oregon. Not only did the state experience a 4.1 percent increase in overall voter turnout in the November 2016 general election compared to the non-AVR 2012 election, but the system demonstrated a capability for better keeping pace with the state's changing demographics. According to a 2017 Demos report, "Only 6 percent of the non-AVR voters were people of color, compared with 11 percent of first-time AVR voters."

Dealing with the ever-changing demographics of the electorate is a challenge for every state, of course. Someday, should reforms like H.R. 1 move forward in Washington, automatic voter registration could become the law of the land, addressing at the national level registration and other voting issues so critical to the health of our democracy.

Until then, the experiences of pioneers like Oregon can inform the process for other states that are looking for ways to catch up to and keep pace with the needs and expectations of the 21st-century voter.

 

The Demos Emerging Voices Fellow
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
Sponsored
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.