Registering Voters Automatically

By Daniel Diorio | Vol . 23, No. 46 / December 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Nearly 17.5 million voter registration applications came through motor vehicle agencies nationwide in 2014, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
  • Approximately one in eight voter registrations is invalid or significantly inaccurate, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
  • Oregon was the first state to adopt automatic voter registration in March 2015.

 “Automatic voter registration” is a phrase that is getting lots of press. It can be seen as new, or it can be seen as an updated version of processes put in place by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). That law, also known as “motor voter,” pioneered a new way of registering to vote in America. It required most states to provide citizens with an opportunity to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license, most often due to a move within or outside the state. Now, some states are looking at taking this model one step further. Instead of giving someone the choice to register at the motor vehicle agency, states will automatically register that person to vote, then provide the opportunity to decline the registration after the fact. Automatic voter registration has been enacted in two states, was vetoed in one and has been under consideration in many others.

How does automatic voter registration work? Currently, voter registration is an “opt in” policy, where an eligible voter chooses to be registered. Automatic voter registration is an “opt out” policy in which an eligible voter is on the rolls unless he or she actively declines to be registered.

The process begins at the motor vehicle agency. When citizens apply for, renew or replace a driver’s license, permit or identification card, their relevant information—including name, address, date of birth and electronic signature—is shared electronically with the state election agency. The agency then verifies eligibility (citizenship, age and residency), compares the information with what’s already in the statewide voter registration database and, if there is no existing registration, adds the person to the voter rolls. Lastly, the election agency mails the voter a registration notification card, which allows the voter to do one of three things within a specified time period:

  • Choose a party affiliation and mail back a completed card.
  • Select the option declining to be registered and mail back the postcard.
  • Take no action and thus become registered as an unaffiliated voter.
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 voter participation. By registering through a routine and necessary transaction, voters won’t have to worry about registration deadlines or application submissions. In a sense, they are automatically enfranchised. Automatic registration also will lead to cleaner 

voter registration rolls. This, in turn, will lead to more efficient 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. For these reasons, supporters expect automatic voter registration to lead to higher voter turnout.

What are the disadvantages of automatic voter registration?

Opponents of automatic voter registration have strong concerns that people do not want the government telling them what to do or that they have to be registered to vote. In other words, it may infringe upon the First Amendment right to free speech by forcing a person to register. They question whether the opt-out form that is sent and received through the mail, in the electronic age, is sufficient to ensure an individual can decline to register. Fraud is also a concern, as some have questioned whether the process can adequately filter out noncitizens who are able to obtain state identification cards legally.

Opponents also argue that more voter registration does not necessarily mean higher voter turnout. Just because a voter is registered does not mean he or she will actually vote on Election Day. Further, some add that automatic registration would not be necessary if states properly implemented the existing National Voter Registration Act; many states continue to struggle to do so 22 years later, due to inadequate information sharing between agencies and a lack of oversight. It remains to be seen whether more voters will get to the polls because of automatic voter registration. 

State Action

At least 20 states and the District of Columbia introduced automatic voter registration legislation in 2015, compared to only five states in 2014. Oregon became the first state in the nation to institute automatic voter registration by enacting House Bill 2177 in March 2015. Starting in January, the Beaver State will automatically register citizens who transact business at motor vehicle agencies. The law provides for retroactively adding people who already have driver’s licenses as well. New Jersey became the next state to pass automatic voter registration when it included it as part of a large elections package known as the Democracy Act (Assembly Bill 4613), passed in June 2015. That bill was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, who cited fraud and cost concerns.

California became the second state to formally adopt automatic voter registration by enacting Assembly Bill 1461 in October 2015. Its system is similar to Oregon’s but has one big difference: People will be able to opt out and decline registration at the point of transaction at the department of motor vehicles. In Oregon, the opportunity to opt out comes afterward. Officials expect to implement the program in the next two years.

Federal Action

Automatic voter registration has also entered into the conversation at the federal level. Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for the policy in a June 2015 speech. Shortly thereafter, Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced the Automatic Voter Registration Act. It has yet to advance in Congress.

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