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AVR Impact on State Voter Registration

Summary: A new Brennan Center report finds significant gains in voter rolls everywhere automatic voter registration has been implemented.

Published: April 11, 2019

Exec­ut­ive Summary

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.