The United States is almost alone among industrial countries and other democracies in putting most of the onus of registering to vote on individual voters, a sometimes cumbersome process that may explain a large portion of why turnout rates in the U.S. are lower than in many other countries.
But the increasing adoption of automatic voter registration over the past five years has led to a big boost in the voter rolls in states that have implemented the new system, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
Although programs differ from state to state, automatic voter registration (also known as AVR in voting circles) generally means that eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote when they get a driver's license, register a vehicle or interact with other government agencies, unless the individual opts out.
Advocates say this is an effective way to expand the electorate, and the Brennan report appears to back that up. It found that registrations rose between 9 and 94 percent in seven states and the District of Columbia, owing to their automatic registration systems. The increase was greatest in Georgia (93.7 percent) and lowest in the District of Columbia (9.4 percent)
"Automatic voter registration works," says Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. She says that registrations increased "irrespective of whether or not the state has a history of pro-voter reforms and when they don't. In blue states, in red states, in purple states, in big states and small states, we see an increase." She added that automatic registration systems seem to have a greater impact in states where a smaller percentage of eligible voters are already registered.
Five years ago, no state had automatic voter registration, but the idea is quickly catching on. Today, 11 states and the District of Columbia have AVR and another six are in the process of implementing it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Brennan does not include Connecticut and New Mexico in its analysis because it does not consider their systems true "automatic voter registration," differing from NCSL.)
Even as Democrats have embraced AVR as part of their platform of changes to election laws, the policy has also been adopted in GOP-dominated states such as Georgia and West Virginia.
Many election officials like the idea of registering voters automatically at places like the motor vehicles department, because those agencies already collect a voter's personal information such as name, address, birth date and signature. Election officials say it can be more efficient and less costly than traditional voter drives, which often involve third-party groups and paper forms that can be lost, mishandled or prone to errors.
Oregon was the first state to implement automatic voter registration system in 2016, and the state's Democratic governor, Kate Brown, told Politico earlier this year that it had been a "phenomenal success." She said it has helped to diversify the state's voter rolls by attracting more minorities and individuals who tend to be lower income and more non-urban. She added that it does not appear to favor one political party over the other.
A report by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress found that AVR systems have also tended to sign up younger voters. It noted that Oregon's program added 390,000 new voters as of August 2017 and more than half of them were under the age of 40. The center credited the state's automatic registration system with increased voter turnout in 2016.
Still, little is known about the impact of the new registration system on voter turnout. The Brennan report did not study whether more voters actually cast ballots. Perez says that it would make sense that increased registrations would lead to higher turnout because political parties and interest groups use the voter rolls to make phone calls, send out mail and knock on doors as part of their get-out-the-vote campaigns.
"All of those things have proven to be helpful in turning voters out and that won't happen if people aren't registered," she says.
But efforts to implement automatic voter registration systems have not always gone smoothly. California rushed to roll out its new "motor voter" system before the 2018 election and a million new voters were signed up as a result (a 26.8 percent increase, according to Brennan).
The state's system was plagued with technological glitches and errors, including tens of thousands of inaccurate voter records and some non-citizens accidentally being registered. Although most of the problems have been fixed, they have raised questions about the security and accuracy of the voter rolls. The Los Angeles Times found that the system at one point was attacked by hackers from Croatia, although the DMV insisted that voter information was not at risk.
West Virginia enacted an automatic voter registration law in 2016, but recently decided to delay implementation until 2021 because of an antiquated DMV computer system. Officials say they do not want to become "another California."
Some Republicans have also expressed reservations about automatic voter registration, saying it could lead to ineligible voters being registered by mistake. They opposed a wide-ranging overhaul of election laws passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representative last month, which would require all states to implement AVR. Republicans call it an unwarranted federal intrusion into elections, which are generally run by the states. The GOP-controlled Senate is not expected to even bring up that legislation.