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Automatic Voter Registration is a Reform to Celebrate this National Voter Registration Day

We need a voter registration system that addresses the barriers of a paper-based process and fulfills the goal of National Voter Registration Day: add eligible voters to the rolls who may not otherwise register.

  • Phoenix Rice-Johnson
September 26, 2017

Today marks National Voter Registration Day, when eligible citizens are encouraged to register to vote for upcoming elections. Getting on the voter rolls is the crucial first step in having the chance to cast a ballot on Election Day. Unfortunately, issues with outdated registration processes prevent many people from participating in our elections.  

A few examples immediately come to mind. In 2014, 40,000 Californians attempted to register to vote online but couldn’t because the deadline had passed. In 2016, two of President Trump’s own children could not vote in the primary because they missed the registration deadline. And even if someone can get on the rolls, the problems don’t end there.  

As many as 5 million already registered voters attempted to cast a ballot in the 2008 general election but were unable to or discouraged from doing so because of registration-related issues. Oftentimes these problems are due to human error, such as illegible handwriting on a form or an election worker accidentally adding a voter’s incorrect information to the rolls.

We need a system that addresses the barriers of a paper-based process and fulfills the goal of National Voter Registration Day: add eligible voters to the rolls who may not otherwise register.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) does this by shifting the responsibility of registering to vote from the individual voter to the government. Through AVR, when a voter interacts with a government agency like the Department of Motor Vehicles, the information she provides is used to register her to vote unless she declines. It’s transferred from the agency to election administrators. Since citizens interact with their government agencies year-round, AVR helps eliminate the deadline barrier by giving citizens ample opportunities to register to vote.

AVR also works to clean up voter rolls and update voters’ information so there are fewer errors keeping people from voting. Each time a voter deals with a government agency, her registration is updated to reflect her most accurate information. This helps election administrators ensure that they have voters’ correct information, and the electronic transfer is less prone to human error than the paper-based system.

Beyond these technical improvements, AVR works in the spirit of National Voter Registration Day by engaging citizens who may otherwise be left out of the voting process. In Oregon, the first state to pass AVR, the voter registration rate at the DMV nearly quadrupled after the policy was implemented. In the law’s first 10 months, 225,000 citizens were automatically registered to vote through interactions with the DMV such as driver’s license renewals. Of those newly registered voters, 100,000 voted in the 2016 election.

Since Oregon’s successful passage of AVR in 2015, nine other states and the District of Columbia have also approved the policy. In August 2017, Illinois’ Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed AVR into law after a unanimous vote in both chambers of the state legislature. This level of bipartisan support for AVR is not uncommon. In 2016, Vermont and West Virginia passed AVR bills with broad backing from both sides of the aisle. One in four Americans now live in a state where they can be automatically registered to vote, and the momentum isn’t slowing. So far in 2017, at least 32 states have introduced legislation that would enact or expand AVR. The remarkable progress AVR has had across the country is good news for voters.

At this point in America’s history we are witnessing a level of distrust in the democratic process that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our democracy. National Voter Registration Day is an opportunity to celebrate our most fundamental right, promote civic unity, and re-engage disaffected voters who currently feel unheard and undervalued. AVR is an important first step.