Automatic Voter Registration

6/23/2022

Automatic voter registration (AVR) is a process in which eligible individuals are automatically registered to vote when interacting with certain government agencies, such as a department of motor vehicles. Information gathered from the government agency is transmitted to election officials who use it to either create a new voter record or update an existing registration. This process is triggered by interaction with a participating government agency, but it is not compulsory. Individuals may opt out of registration at the agency or later by returning a mailer, depending on the state.

As of January 2022, 22 states and Washington, D.C., are categorized by NCSL as having enacted or implemented automatic voter registration.

How AVR Works

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The NVRA pioneered a new way to register to vote in America: It required most states to provide citizens with an opportunity to register to vote when applying for or renewing a driver’s license at a department of motor vehicles (DMV) or other designated state agencies. Because of the requirement for DMVs to participate in voter registration, the NVRA is often referred to as “motor voter.”

Some states apply the same automated processes to other state-designated agencies covered under NVRA. Under Section 7 of the NVRA, any state office that provides public assistance or operates state-funded programs that serve individuals with disabilities must offer opportunities to register to vote. The law also requires states to designate additional offices providing voter registration services.

Since the passage of the NVRA, the collection of voter information has shifted from paper-based forms to digital records, with many state DMV systems linking electronically to statewide voter registration databases. This allows the DMV to not only collect information on eligible voters but also electronically transfer that information to the voter registration database. Electronic data transfers are more accurate and less resource intensive.

In January 2016, Oregon became the first state to implement AVR. In what is sometimes referred to as the “Oregon model,” an eligible voter who interacts with the DMV is not asked whether they would like to register to vote, but instead is automatically opted into registering. The voter is soon sent a notification informing them they were registered and that they can opt out by returning the notification.

Other states which have adopted AVR have chosen different approaches, characterized by the point at which a voter may opt out of being registered to vote. The majority of AVR states use one of two approaches:

  1. Front-end opt out: With this approach, the customer at the DMV may choose to register to vote or decline to register at the point of service. The DMV will show an electronic screen asking whether they would like to register to vote. If they decline, the voter is not registered. If they affirm, in states where voters have the option of affiliating with a political party, the next screen will ask if they would like to do so.
     
  2. Back-end opt out: Customers during their agency transaction provide information needed to register to vote. After the transaction occurs, the customer is notified by the agency via a post-transaction mailer that they will be registered to vote, unless they respond to the notification and decline. If the customer takes no action, they will be registered to vote. In this approach, registration information is automatically transferred, and customers may choose to decline or affiliate after receiving the post-transaction mailer.
     

See the table below for details on enactment dates, enabling legislation, participating state agencies and opt out method.

Table 2: States that have enacted automatic voter registration*
State Year Enacted Bill
Number
Year Implemented Participating Agencies Type of Opt-Out
Alaska 2016 Measure 1 2017 Permanent Fund Dividend  Back-end (post-transaction mailer)
California 2015 AB 1461 2018 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
Colorado n/a Done through Department of Motor Vehicles system 2017 DMV, Department of Health, and other agencies designated by the secretary of state Back-end (post-transaction mailer)
Connecticut 2016 Agreement between Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles  2016 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
Delaware 2021 SB 5 Statutory deadline of 2023 DMV, Department of Health and Social Services, Department of Labor, any state agency selected by its chief administrator to provide voter registration services for its employees and the public Back-end (post-transaction mailer)
District of Columbia 2016 B21-0194 2018 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
Georgia 2016 Done through Department of Driver Services and Attorney General's office 2016 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
Hawaii 2021 SB 159 2021 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
Illinois 2017 SB 1933 2018 DMV and other agencies designated by the State Board of Elections Front-end (point-of-service)
Maine 2019 HB 1070 2022 DMV and other designated "source agencies" Front-end (point-of-service)
Maryland 2018 SB 1048 2019 DMV, health benefit exchange, local departments of social services and the Mobility Certification Office Front-end (point-of-service)
Massachusetts 2018 HB 4834 2020 DMV, division of medical assistance, health insurance connector authority, other agencies verified by the secretary of state that collect “reliable citizenship information” Back-end (post-transaction mailer)
Michigan 2018 Ballot Proposal 3 2019 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
New Jersey 2018 AB 2014 2018 DMV and other state agencies designated by the secretary of state Front-end (point-of-service)
New Mexico 2019 SB 672 2020 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
New York 2020 SB 8806 Anticipated 2023 DMV, DOH, DOL and additional agencies Front-end (point-of-service)
Nevada 2018 Ballot Question Number 5
AB 345
AB 432 
2020**

DMV (in 2020)


Department of Health and Human Services, agencies designated by the Department of Health and Human Services to receive applications for Medicaid, the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange and any other state agency or tribal agency that meets certain requirements and is approved by the Governor (by 2024)

Front-end (point-of-service)
Oregon 2015 HB 2177 2016 DMV Back-end (post-transaction mailer)
Rhode Island 2017 HB 5702 2018 DMV and other state agencies designated by the secretary of state Front-end (point-of-service)
Vermont 2016 HB 458 2017 DMV and other state agencies designated by the secretary of state Front-end (point-of-service)
Virginia 2020 HB 235 2020 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)
Washington 2018 HB 2595 2019 DMV, health benefit exchange, other state agencies approved by the secretary of state Front-end (point-of-service)
West Virginia 2016 HB 4013 2021 DMV Front-end (point-of-service)

*In some states, NCSL uses its own approach for categorization. If a legislature enacts a bill with the words “automatic” or “automated” in it to describe a paperless system for registering voters at DMVs or other state agencies, we include them on this page. Likewise, if, through existing authority and administrative action a state moves toward either of the two categories, we include them. Last, if we hear from a representative of the state’s chief election official (often the secretary of state) that their system qualifies as automatic or automated, we add them, too.

**Nevada's AVR system consists of two phases. The first phase established AVR through the DMV and was implemented on Jan. 1, 2020, after voters approved Ballot Question Number 5 in 2018 and the legislature enacted enabling legislation, AB 345, in 2019. The second phase, created by AB 432 in 2021, expands AVR to state agencies beyond the DMV. The implementation deadline for phase two is Jan. 1, 2024.

What Are the Benefits of Automatic Voter Registration?

Proponents of automatic voter registration say the policy will remove barriers to registration for eligible voters, the first step on the way to increasing voter participation. By registering through a routine and necessary transaction such as those at the DMV, voters won’t have to worry about registration deadlines or application submissions.

Automatic registration can help with voter registration list maintenance because the process updates existing registrations with current addresses. Clean voter rolls form a strong basis for accurate elections, with the added benefit of reducing the use of costly provisional ballots, which are a fail-safe voting option when there is a discrepancy in a voter’s registration status. Some supporters also say automatic voter registration leads to higher voter turnout, although evidence supporting this claim is mixed.

What Are the Disadvantages of Automatic Voter Registration?

Opponents of automatic voter registration may say that the government should not tell citizens they must register to vote, particularly in states that provide the "opt-out" choice by mail, after the fact. Furthermore, they question whether opt-out forms that are sent and received through the mail are sufficient to ensure an individual can decline to register.

Additional Resources