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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.
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.


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