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Explainer

Automatic Voter Registration, a Summary

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have already approved automatic voter registration. More states are expected to pass the reform soon.

Last Updated: June 30, 2021
Published: July 10, 2019

Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion (AVR) is an innov­at­ive policy that stream­lines the way Amer­ic­ans register to vote. AVR makes two simple, yet trans­form­at­ive, changes to the way our coun­try has tradi­tion­ally registered voters.  First, AVR makes voter regis­tra­tion “opt-out” instead of “opt-in”—eli­gible citizens who inter­act with govern­ment agen­cies are registered to vote or have their exist­ing regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion updated, unless they affirm­at­ively decline. Again, the voter can opt-out; it is not compuls­ory regis­tra­tion. Second, those agen­cies trans­fer voter regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion elec­tron­ic­ally to elec­tion offi­cials instead of using paper regis­tra­tion forms. These common-sense reforms increase regis­tra­tion rates, clean up the voter rolls, and save states money.

AVR is gain­ing momentum across the coun­try. Currently 20 states and D.C. have approved the policy, mean­ing that over a third of Amer­ic­ans live in a juris­dic­tion that has either passed or imple­men­ted AVR. A brief history of AVR’s legis­lat­ive victor­ies and each state’s AVR imple­ment­a­tion date can be found here. In this legis­lat­ive cycle alone, twenty six states have intro­duced legis­la­tion to imple­ment or expand auto­matic regis­tra­tion. A full break­down of the bills intro­duced in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 is avail­able here.

The results have been excit­ing. Since Oregon became the first state in the nation to imple­ment AVR in 2016, the Beaver State has seen regis­tra­tion rates quad­ruple at DMV offices. In the first six months after AVR was imple­men­ted in Vermont on New Year’s Day 2017, regis­tra­tion rates jumped 62 percent when compared to the first half of 2016.

The bene­fits of AVR extend beyond increas­ing the number of people regis­ter­ing. The policy keeps voter rolls more accur­ate by creat­ing a constant stream of updates between regis­tra­tion agen­cies and elec­tion offi­cials and by redu­cing the odds of mistakes caused by processing paper regis­tra­tion forms by hand. Cleaner rolls reduce errors that cause delays on Elec­tion Day and prevent eligible voters from cast­ing regu­lar ballots. AVR also lowers costs. For example, the trans­ition to elec­tronic trans­fer allows states to save money on print­ing, mail­ing, and data entry.

Opt-out and elec­tronic trans­fer are the two neces­sary compon­ents of AVR, but states’ policies still vary in the details. An in-depth dive into those differ­ences and each state’s policy can be found at our Policy Differ­ences of AVR page. Many other states have made consid­er­able strides updat­ing their elec­tion infra­struc­ture that have come short of imple­ment­ing AVR. For a list of these reforms, see our Related Advance­ments in Voter Regis­tra­tion page.

Our current voter regis­tra­tion systems are oner­ous and outdated. Too often, regis­tra­tion stands as a signi­fic­ant obstacle to access to the ballot. AVR offers a new way forward that can help to open access to the fran­chise and improve Amer­ican demo­cracy. Partic­u­larly at a time when many states have enacted restrict­ive voting laws and voter turnout has hit record lows, AVR is a needed reform.