Automatic Voter Registration and Modernization in the States

Many states across the country are successfully using components of voter registration modernization. Here is a complete rundown.

April 11, 2018

Automatic voter registration is gaining traction quickly in the states. Since March 2015, eleven states plus the District of Columbia have authorized the policy. Automatic registration makes two transformative, yet simple, changes to the voter registration process: Eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote unless they decline, and agencies transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials. These two changes create a seamless process that is more convenient and less error-prone for both voters and government officials. This policy boosts registration rates, cleans up the rolls, makes voting more convenient, and reduces the potential for voter fraud, all while lowering costs.

Automatic voter registration is the gold standard of modernized registration, and it builds on other reforms to bring voter registration to the 21st Century—which are increasingly commonplace across the country. Already, 49 states and the District of Columbia—without fanfare or partisan wrangling—have moved forward with important elements of voter registration modernization, including electronic registration at DMVs, online registration, Election Day registration, portability, and preregistration. Additionally, many states are currently considering ways to modernize their systems. See here for voting bills under consideration across the country.

Elements of Modernized Voter Registration Are in Wide Use across the Country:

Electronic Registration

Electronic registration is a key building block of automatic registration. It gives citizens the choice to be electronically registered to vote at the same time they do business with a government office, such as apply for a driver’s license or state veterans’ benefits, by digitally transferring their voter registration information to the appropriate elections office. This eliminates errors caused by paper records, cleans up the voter rolls, and saves states money.

  • At least 35 states—Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia—plus the District of Columbia, currently or will soon have fully or substantially electronic voter registration at DMVs.
  • At least six states—Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington—have, or soon will have, electronic registration at social service agencies in addition to the DMV.  

Online Registration

Online registration is a key component of Voter Registration Modernization that allows voters to register—and to check and update their registration records—through a secure and accessible online portal.

  • 38 states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—plus the District of Columbia, currently or will soon offer online voter registration.

Portability

Once an eligible citizen is on a state’s voter rolls, she should remain registered and her records should move with her so long as she continues to reside in that state. States can achieve portable registration through automatic address updates that capture voters who have moved, and through Election Day procedures that enable voters who have moved within the state to cast a ballot that counts. In total, 20 states currently or will soon have systems of portable registration that allow registered voters who move to cast valid ballots even if they do not update their registrations before Election Day.

  • 15 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—plus the District of Columbia, currently or will soon permit Election Day registration, which allows voters to register or update their existing registration on Election Day.
  • In addition, 6 states—Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, and Utah—have systems of portable registration that allow registered voters who move to cast valid ballots even if they do not update their registrations before Election Day.

Election Day Correction

Eligible voters should have secure, fail-safe procedures to correct mistaken information at the polls. Even with the best and most modern list-building practices, some errors are inevitable and some voter registrations will fall through the cracks. No eligible American should lose the right to vote because of errors or omissions.

  • 15 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—plus the District of Columbia, currently or will soon permit Election Day registration, which allows voters to register or update their existing registration on Election Day.
  • In addition, Maryland and North Carolina allow voters register or update their existing registration during the early voting period, but not on Election Day.
  • North Dakota has another fail-safe mechanism in place, as they do not have a registration requirement.

Preregistration

States with preregistration laws enable young people to register as future voters, even if they won’t turn 18 before the next Election Day. Voters are then automatically registered once they turn 18. Allowing future voters to preregister before they turn 18—for example, when they first get a driver’s license—is an important policy to ensure that every voter is registered and able to vote as soon as she is eligible.

  • 16 states—California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington—plus the District of Columbia, allow or have enacted legislation allowing 16 or 17 year-olds to preregister to vote even if they won’t turn 18 before Election Day.

Every State That Has Modernized Registration Has Saved Money:

  • Modernization is a modest investment, and it will pay for itself, saving states millions of dollars a year.
  • Washington spent about $280,000 to implement electronic voter registration at DMVs and introduce online registration. The Secretary of State’s office saved approximately $176,000 in the first two years, and the counties saved even more.
  • Online registration cost Arizona less than $100,000, and automating DMV registrations cost only an additional $30,000.
  • In Maricopa County, Arizona (which includes Phoenix), processing a paper voter registration form costs 83¢, compared to an average of 3¢ for applications received electronically from the DMV or through the online system.
  • In 2008, Maricopa County saved data entry costs equivalent to the cost of eight full-time employees.
  • Delaware saved over $200,000 in the first year after improving its electronic voter registration system at DMVs. 

Electronic Transmission of Voter Registrations Increases Registration Rates:

  • In Washington and Kansas, the number of voter registration transactions at DMVs doubled after the system became electronic.
  • In South Dakota, registration rates at the DMV increased about six times over after the state implemented electronic voter registration.
  • In Delaware, which implemented partial electronic voter registration at DMVs over a decade ago, 81% of all registrations come from DMVs, compared to 38% nationally.

Automatic Voter Registration and Other Modernizing Reforms Possible Now

The movement for automatic voter registration is thriving in the states, and other modernizing reforms continue to expand. State experiences show that voter registration modernization is feasible, cost-effective, and will save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

  • Please click here for a policy brief on automatic, permanent voter registration.
  • Please click here for a primer on the key policy points of automatic voter registration and other modernizing elements.
  • Please click here for our latest report on paperless registration and how states have moved to modernize their voter registration systems.
  • Please click here for a issue brief on Voter Registration for the 21st Century.
  • Please click here for Components of a Bill to Modernize the Voter Registration System.

More on Automatic Voter Registration

Back to Voter Registration Modernization