Over the past two years, nine states and the District of Columbia have quietly implemented a significant overhaul of the voter registration process, aiming to reduce bureaucracy and increase the number of people signed up to vote.
Automatic voter registration, or AVR for short, essentially turns the current opt-in system of voter registration to an opt-out system. “When eligible citizens interact with certain government offices, they are added to the voter rolls unless they say no,” according to an article by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which is working to advance the idea.
Two years ago, no state had AVR. Today, 1 in 4 Americans live in a state that has approved automatic voter registration. “AVR is coming,” says Natalie Tennant, a former Democratic secretary of state from West Virginia who is now the Brennan Center’s manager of state advocacy on voting rights and elections.
The idea is sometimes assumed to be good for Democrats, in the same way that many reforms to broaden the electorate, such as early voting and same-day voter registration, are presumed to be.
Indeed, AVR first passed in 2015 in the blue state of Oregon. Another solidly blue state, Vermont, passed it in 2016, though with strong bipartisan support in the legislature. Since then, California and Rhode Island have passed it, and Connecticut and Colorado have approved it administratively. Nevada voters will weigh in on AVR in 2018.
But AVR has deep support from good-government groups, and its potential partisan impacts have been uncertain enough that Republican states have also been among those that have adopted it.
Alaska passed AVR through a ballot measure; Georgia put it in place administratively; and West Virginia passed it as part of a broader, GOP-backed voter ID bill. More recently, Illinois’ Democratic-controlled legislature passed AVR and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner -- despite being at loggerheads with lawmakers on many other issues -- signed it into law this August.
So could there be a largely unnoticed upside for Republicans with AVR? Possibly.
In only two AVR jurisdictions -- California and the District of Columbia -- do unregistered but eligible African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans collectively outnumber unregistered but eligible non-Hispanic whites, according to Census data for the 2016 electorate. In the other states, unregistered whites outnumber unregistered minorities: Alaska, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.
Because California is by far the most populous of these jurisdictions, today’s AVR states do collectively have more unregistered minorities than unregistered whites, though narrowly.
However, in the United States as a whole, there are 1.6 times as many unregistered non-Hispanic whites as there are unregistered minorities. While black, Hispanic and Asian citizens are statistically more likely to be unregistered than white citizens, the sheer number of white citizens in the U.S. is so large that more whites are unregistered overall.
So potentially, at least, AVR could end up registering more white voters, and that would actually be a boon for Republicans. According to 2016 exit polls, white voters supported Trump by a 57 percent to 37 percent margin.
Could AVR actually have that effect in practice? Experts we contacted say it’s possible, but they added that it’s not a slam dunk.
“It’s complicated,” says David Wasserman, an analyst at the Cook Political Report who has studied unregistered voters in battleground states. “Over the long term, on average, I'd expect Democrats to gain from AVR because minorities are disproportionately nonregistrants.”
In addition, Wasserman says, Democrats and their allies in labor unions and minority organizations have historically had been better at the nitty-gritty of voter registration efforts than Republicans have. That said, “every election is different,” he says.
Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, agrees that it’s too simple to say that only one party would inevitably benefit from AVR. “Not all minorities are Democrats,” he says. “Not all Anglos are Republicans. Not all of either group would register even in an automatic registration structure. So there's no way to know whether more of one group would register than the other.”
There’s another factor, too: “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,” says Eric L. Davis, an emeritus professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
June S. Speakman, a political scientist at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island, adds that AVR introduces a new and uncertain wrinkle into a well-defined process. Traditional voter registration drives “are a form of mobilization -- having people at least sign a form is an active form of participation that may actually put them on the path to the polling place,” Speakman says. “AVR doesn’t do that -- it’s passive participation. So do folks who are registered that way actually vote?”
The most extensive data produced so far on AVR suggests a relatively nuanced picture of the potential partisan gains.
A study of Oregon’s experience published by the liberal Center for American Progress found that 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.
That’s a mix of demographic indicators that would suggest benefits for both parties. Young voters, lower-income voters and those who live in racially diverse areas tend to lean Democratic. But voters in suburban areas and areas with lower rates of college degrees tend to lean more Republican.
Daniel Nichanian, a lecturer in political science at the University of Chicago who has written extensively in support of AVR, echoes other election experts when he says that he’s been focusing on how to expand access to voting, not on which party it could benefit.
“The basic issue here is this: The country has terribly low participation rates and registration rates, and this is a major obstacle to democracy, collective decision-making and political empowerment,” Nichanian says. “AVR is not by itself a panacea to this situation, of course, but it's certainly part of a range of things that ought to be done in response. So it's quite exciting in its own right.”