We’re Still Asking: What Is Automatic Voter Registration? Just improved Motor-Voter?
In July/August 2016, The Canvass led with the story, What is Automatic Voter Registration Anyway? What the Experts Say. We’re still asking, because there’s still no one solid definition.
The layperson might think “it means everyone who is eligible to vote is automatically registered.” Well, that might be true in other nations, but not here. Nothing magical happens when Americans turn 18 to transform them into voters. (In some other countries, where there is a national registry of citizens and a birthday makes you eligible to vote without further action, the nomenclature usually used is universal registration. FairVote describes the Canadian Model.)
In the U.S., “automatic voter registration” refers to improvements in how voter registration services are handled at motor vehicle agencies across the country. The changes commonly include an upgrade in how voter registration data is transferred to state voter registration systems, scrapping paper registration forms in favor of electronically transferring data. (In 2016, one third of all new voter registrations came from DMVs, according to the federal government’s Election Administration and Voting Survey.)
As part of their DMV transaction in most states, customers provide the information they need to register to vote. Beyond that commonality, each state differs on how citizens interacting with the DMV are offered the opportunity to decline or accept voter registration. Recently NCSL staff had a call to discuss this very question with several experts who work on voter registration issues. John Lindback of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME), outlined four approaches:
- Postcard via mail: A DMV license applicant who is not registered to vote is sent a letter after they leave the office, informing them that they will be registered to vote based on the information (citizenship, age, residency) they just provided at the DMV unless they choose to opt out by signing and returning a postcard by a certain date. Oregon (through the DMV) and Alaska (through its Permanent Fund) use this method. It is often referred to as “opt out” automatic registration.
- Postcard provided at the agency: The DMV license applicant is given a postcard at the agency that says the information they provided to DMV will be used to register them to vote, or to update their voter registration record, unless they sign and return the card to opt out. A signed opt-out card can be left with the DMV or the applicant can return it by mail. We know of no states that use this system so far, but if used, it would reduce mailing costs. This, too, would be an “opt out” method.
- Registration at the agency: The DMV license applicant will be shown a screen that tells them that their information will be used to register them to vote unless they choose to decline by tapping “No, thanks” or its equivalent on the screen. (If they do not decline, the next screen will give them the opportunity to choose a political party.) In some cases, they will be asked to attest to eligibility; in other cases, their signature at the agency will serve as their attestation of eligibility. Citizens who are already registered will automatically receive a new voter registration card in the mail with their updated voter information. States using this process include Rhode Island and California.
- Registration “opt in” at the agency: Customers at the DMV provide information needed to register to vote. An electronic screen asks them if they would like to register to vote (as opposed to the previous option, where they were asked if they do not want to register). If they say yes, they are taken to another screen where they are given the opportunity to choose a party. On one of the two screens, customers attest to eligibility. Individuals do not have to take further action to register to vote. Examples of this system include Delaware and Utah.
The Brennan Center for Justice’s Automatic Voter Registration decision point on whether a state is “automatic” or not is based on whether the question is asked as “opt out” or “opt in.” By that rule, all of the first three systems mentioned above are automatic, and the fourth is not because it asks the voter if they want to register, rather than asking them if they don’t want to register.
NCSL is using its own approach: If a legislature enacts a bill with the words “automatic,” “automated” or “electronic” in it to describe a paperless system for registering voters at DMVs or other state agencies, we’re including them on our Automatic/Automated Voter Registration page. If, through existing authority and administrative action a state moves toward any of the top three categories—and if we know they’ve done so—we’re including 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.
That’s not exactly a distinct line. Delaware, for instance, was a pioneer at managing DMV voter registration transactions electronically, but it’s not included on our page because it fits the fourth category and we haven’t been alerted by state officials that they consider their system to be automatic.
“Any of these systems are preferable to paper-based systems still used in many states,” Lindback said. “Paper is inefficient and lacks security for the voter. Electronic voter registration data is faster and more efficient to process by elections officials. These new systems result in more accurate and secure voter rolls and increases in the number of registered voters.”
There is another view, of course. “Registering to vote and voting has never been as easy as it is in 2019. It's harder to avoid opportunities to register than it is to register,” said J. Christian Adams of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF). “Mandating that every name on a government list end up on the voter rolls has so far proven to be a train wreck wherever it has been tried. It cranks error and duplication into the system.” A key place to look for more insights is PILF’s Best Practices for Achieving Integrity in Voter Registration.
From a legislative viewpoint, you might be a fan of universal registration, or you might be a fan of efficiency in government. Either way, here are three questions legislators ask to investigate their own state’s system:
- Does paper change hands?
- Do registration applications get reviewed at the local level—and what are the pros and cons of doing that?
- Do your election officials and transportation officials meet and talk?
If you think your state qualifies as having automatic, automated or electronic registration and it isn’t on our page, be sure to let us know.