Automatic Voter Registration: A Key to Unlocking Democracy

This year, a record number of Americans voted in the midterm elections, marking it the highest turnout rate for a midterm election since 1966. Still, there is more to be done to better ensure higher participation from the electorate. Democrats have announced that the first bill they intend to introduce in the House next term is one that will, in part, remove barriers to voting. Members of Congress have identified automatic voter registration (“AVR”) as one way to achieve such goal. Through AVR, eligible voters would be included in the state’s voter rolls upon interacting with government agencies. For example, if an individual who is legally eligible to vote were to visit the DMV, he or she would be immediately added to the state’s voter roll. Instead of transferring data through paperwork, the government agencies would transmit voter registration information electronically to election officials. This would help streamline the registration process. Should they choose to do so, individuals will have the opportunity to opt out and unregister. Thus, no one would be compelled to remain a registered voter, nor would they be mandated to vote. AVR will make it easier for eligible citizens to vote, thus, it will increase turnout rates and encourage more people to participate in the democratic process.

As a whole, current voter registration schemes in many states are far from perfect. According to a report issued by the Pew Research Center in 2012, traditional voter registration systems were “plagued with errors and inefficiencies that waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections.” Pew found that 1 in every 4 eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Additionally, it found that 1 in 8 registrations were inaccurate or invalid. Pew attributed many of these inaccuracies to the administration of antiquated and burdensome registration systems. For example, some errors occur when the registration is received from voters and third-party organizations. The data entry process of inputting voter registration information into the official voter rolls also contributes to inaccuracies. With the traditional paper system for registration, state election officials must manually enter registrants’ information into the voter systems. Typos are bound to happen as the manual transfer of data from a paper system leads to a greater likelihood of errors, especially when election officials are often forced to interpret “chicken scratch handwriting.” Furthermore, in 2016, Election Protection, a nonpartisan voter assistance group, reported that 30% of the problems voters faced on Election Day involved issues regarding their registration status. Voter registration status remains an obstacle to voting, and AVR would help lift some of these barriers.

In 2015, the Brennan Center estimated that AVR would add a maximum of 50 million eligible American citizens to states’ voter rolls. As of today, fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved or implemented AVR, with Oregon becoming the first state to adopt AVR in 2015. In Oregon, once the DMV sends eligible voters’ records to the Oregon State Elections Division, the Division sends postcards to each resident notifying them that they will be added to the state’s voter rolls. However, Oregon maintains an opt-out system in which individuals can sign and mail back the postcard within 21 days of receipt to indicate their desire not to be registered. If the Elections Divisions does not receive a response after 21 days, that individual will be automatically included in the state’s voter registration roll. Within the year AVR was enacted, Oregon’s registration rate was about four times higher than it was four years prior, with 272,000 people added to the voter rolls because of AVR. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, AVR allowed for the registration of 116,000 people who were unlikely to have become registered otherwise, and it enabled Oregon’s electorate to become more representative of its population by including more young, rural, lower-income, and ethnically diverse citizens on its voter rolls. When comparing the demographic and geographic differences between those who became registered through AVR and those who registered through Oregon’s traditional voter registration system, the Center for American Progress found that 40 percent of automatic voter registrants were 30 or younger, whereas voters under 30 comprised only 13 percent of registrants through the traditional registration system. Additionally, Oregon voters who registered through AVR were more likely to live in suburban areas, as well as low and middle-income areas. Other states have followed Oregon’s lead. California, a state that was estimated to have 6.6 million eligible but unregistered voters, passed AVR in 2015. Just recently, Nevada and Michigan voters approved AVR through ballot initiatives. AVR has received strong bipartisan support, as states such as Alaska and West Virginia have also passed legislation that would automatically register voters.

When states make it easier for its voting eligible population to register, voter turnout increases. In the United States, 86.8 percent of registered voters voted in the 2016 election. And states that provide opportunities for same-day registration, or the ability to register on Election Day, exhibit a 5 to 7 percent higher voter turnout rate in comparison to states that do not offer same day voter registration. Beyond America, AVR has also proven to be successful in other democratic countries. Sweden, Denmark, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Israel are all countries that implement a form of AVR and have higher voter turnout and participation rates than the United States.

AVR would serve as a cost effective measure that will streamline the registration process and help produce more accurate voting records than traditional paper registration systems. When voters register through paper forms, the process usually includes printing the registration form, completing it, and mailing it to election officials. The election officials must then manually enter each registrant’s information into its voter database. This multi-step process is not as convenient or efficient compared to AVR, where the burden to register shifts from the voter to the state. Thus, if the United States were to adopt AVR nationwide, it would represent a significant shift in the meaning and nature of the right to vote. While citizens have to apply to be able to exercise their right to vote through manual registration, AVR treats voting as a basic civic duty and right that is guaranteed to all who are eligible. Furthermore, with AVR, an eligible voter’s information will be updated in the voter rolls electronically as soon as that individual interacts with a government agency—through getting a driver’s license, receiving Social Security benefits, or becoming a naturalized citizen, for example. Through AVR, voter information would be securely transmitted, and would ensure that only eligible citizens are registering to vote. Because these government agencies would be collecting vital citizenship and biographical data, the voter roll records would be up to date, accurate, and only include those individuals who are lawfully allowed to vote.

This modernization of voter registration will provide better safeguards to protect against improper or invalid registrations. AVR will allow for registration records to update automatically should registrants move, which would prevent duplicate records and individuals from being registered in several locations at once. When most voters move today, they have to actively re-register in their new locality and also un-register from their old one. Imposing this responsibility on individuals will likely discourage them from voting, and will lead to the accumulation of inaccurate and invalid voter rolls. Lastly, nationwide implementation of AVR would be cost effective. Whereas it is estimated to cost the government 83 cents to process each registration application using traditional paper methods, it would cost it 3 cents to process each registration through AVR.

As a democracy, it is America’s duty to continue ensuring that its citizens can effectively voice their beliefs. Making it easier for eligible voters to access the ballot represents one major step in promoting the pillars of a democratic society. Although some opponents may argue otherwise, automatically registering voters would not infringe on an individual’s right to choose whether they want to participate in the electoral process. AVR will neither compel people to cast ballots nor require them to remain registered. Rather, it will automatically opt-in people into the registration system, and individuals will have the choice to opt-out. By switching to a system that allows citizens to opt out of registering to vote rather than opting in, the voter pool will expand and turnout will similarly increase. Importantly, automatic voter registration will broaden the electorate and thus be more representative of the country’s population. To encourage civic participation, we must make it easier for citizens to access crucial democratic tools so that they can participate. When we include more voices in the country’s decision-making process, it better legitimizes the government’s rule, fosters a more informed citizenry, and enables America to live up to its founding principles.

Written by

Mandy is a 3L at HLS. She is interested in issues relating to criminal justice, gender equality, and voting rights. Mandy is the Co-President of the Harvard Law School Democrats. Prior to law school, Mandy served as the Director of Student Correspondence and Engagement in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. Mandy grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and received her undergraduate degree from The George Washington University.

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