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New Study: Automatic Voter Registration Increases Registration Rates Across the Board

Automatic voter registration has led to a spike in average registration rates in every state where it’s been implemented, according to a new analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

April 11, 2019

Brennan Center releases first-of-its-kind study showing AVR significantly boosted the number of people being registered — with increases ranging from 9 to 94 percent

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Automatic voter registration has led to a spike in average registration rates in every state where it’s been implemented, according to a new analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. In the first study of its kind, the Brennan Center analyzed the effects of automatic voter registration (AVR), a system in which eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote at agencies like the DMV unless they opt out.

Controlling for all other factors, the study shows that AVR has successfully increased voter registration rates in seven states and the District of Columbia. In short, automatic voter registration has chipped away at the antiquated obstacles to registering eligible citizens to vote.

“As we’ve said from the beginning: automatic voter registration works. It’s that simple,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We should be making it as easy as possible for eligible citizens to vote, and that begins with getting registered. Our current voter registration systems are onerous and outdated. We’re at a moment of great reform, and our election systems are overdue for an upgrade. As states continue to enact restrictive voting laws, AVR is a needed change.”

Since no two AVR systems are exactly the same, the report provides a state-by-state breakdown of each state’s AVR system and the impact on registration rates after the policy went into effect.

Here are each jurisdiction’s percentage of increase in registrations:

  • Alaska: 33.7%
  • California: 26.8%
  • Colorado: 16.0%
  • Georgia: 93.7%
  • Oregon: 15.9%
  • Rhode Island: 47.4%
  • Vermont: 60.2%
  • Washington, DC: 9.4%

One factor that varies from state to state is when a person gets the opportunity to opt-out of being registered: either during the transaction (sometimes called “point of service” or “front-end” opt-out) or later on via a letter in the mail (sometimes called “back-end” opt-out). The Brennan Center’s research shows that AVR increases the number of voters being registered regardless of whether voters are given the opt-out opportunity while at the agency or through a mailer some weeks later. The policy is effective in big and small states, as well as red and blue states.

“Through AVR, places like Georgia have nearly doubled the rate of voter registrations since this policy went into effect,” said Kevin Morris, a quantitative researcher at the Brennan Center. “But it’s not just the increase in registrations. AVR is a 21st century policy proposal – other analyses show that it keeps voter rolls more accurate, which reduces errors that cause delays on Election Day, and it also lowers costs by allowing states to save money on printing, mailing, and data entry. Creating a constant stream of updates between registration agencies and election officials is beneficial for everyone from the people running elections to the people casting their ballots.”

Previous research has found states that implemented AVR have seen registration rates rise. However, that research has often failed to establish a causal relationship – that AVR, absent other factors, was responsible for the rise in registrations. This new report by the Brennan Center, using modern statistical tools, concludes that in every studied jurisdiction that implemented AVR, the policy boosted the number of registrations by a statistically significant degree.

The Brennan Center first developed this policy proposal more than a decade ago, and momentum has picked up in recent years with fifteen states plus Washington, DC passing AVR laws since 2015. AVR is a key component of HR 1, the For the People Act, sweeping legislation that passed the House of Representatives last month and was recently introduced in the Senate. As the country heads toward the 2020 election, repairing our outdated registration systems is mandatory. On a national scale, AVR would add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, save money, and increase accuracy.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize – and when necessary, defend – our country’s systems of democracy and justice.


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