Over the past five years, a significant reform of voter registration has been enacted and implemented across the country. Automatic voter registration or AVR offers the chance to modernize our election infrastructure so that many more citizens are accurately registered to vote.
AVR features two seemingly small but transformative changes to how people register to vote:
- Citizens who interact with government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles are registered to vote, unless they decline. In other words, a person is registered unless they opt out, instead of being required to opt in.
- The information citizens provide as part of their application for government services is electronically transmitted to elections officials, who verify their eligibility to vote. This process is seamless and secure.
In the past five years, 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted AVR. (Three states — Connecticut, Utah, and New Mexico — have adopted something very close to automatic registration.)
How has automatic registration worked? Has it, in fact, increased registration rates as its proponents had hoped? This report is the first comprehensive analysis of the impact of AVR on voter registration rates. In the past, individual states have reported increases in voter registration since the adoption of automatic voter registration. But that could be due to many factors, such as compelling candidates or demographic change. Previous analyses have not spoken as to cause and effect or examined the impact of different approaches to AVR.
Is it possible to isolate the impact of automatic registration itself? This multistate analysis leverages low-level voter file data from around the country and cutting-edge statistical tools to present estimates of automatic voter registration’s impact on registration numbers.
This report finds:
- AVR markedly increases the number of voters being registered — increases in the number of registrants ranging from 9 to 94 percent.
- These registration increases are found in big and small states, as well as states with different partisan makeups.
These gains are found across different versions of the reform. For example, voters must be given the opportunity to opt out (among other things, to protect ineligible people from accidentally being registered). Nearly all of the states with AVR give that option at the point of contact with government agencies; two ask for opt-outs later in the process. The increase in registration rates is similarly high whichever version of the policy is adopted.
How did we do this study? We were able to isolate the effect of AVR using a common political science method known as “matching.” We ran an algorithm to match areas that implemented AVR with demographically similar jurisdictions that did not. Matching similar jurisdictions allowed us to build a baseline figure of what a state’s registration rate would have looked like had it not implemented AVR. By aggregating and comparing baseline jurisdictions to AVR jurisdictions, we demonstrated that AVR significantly boosted the number of people being registered everywhere it was implemented.
Our nation is stronger when more people participate in the political process. This report shows that AVR is a highly effective way to bring more people into our democracy.
Read the Brennan Center response to April 18 Memo by Sean McElwee of AVR Now.
Read the Brennan Center response to the May 11 California Civic Engagement Project / Public Policy Institute of California report “Effects of Automatic Voter Registration in the United States.”
Read the Brennan Center response to the May 11 Latino Policy and Politics Initiative report “Implementing and Assessing Automatic Voter Registration.