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The Case for Automatic Voter Registration

Last Updated: July 21, 2016
Published: September 22, 2015

Auto­matic, univer­sal voter regis­tra­tion is a compre­hens­ive plan to sign up every eligible Amer­ican to vote. It would add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, save money, and increase accur­acy — while protect­ing the integ­rity of elec­tions. 

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We Amer­ic­ans are proud of our demo­cracy. The act of voting — being able to elect our lead­ers and set our course as a nation — defines the United States at home and in the eyes of the world. But millions of eligible citizens are blocked from the polls, most often by an outdated and error-prone voter regis­tra­tion system. Too many Amer­ic­ans go to vote on Elec­tion Day only to find their names are not on the voter rolls — often, wrongly deleted. It’s time to modern­ize voter regis­tra­tion, bring our system into the 21st century, and ensure all eligible voters have a say in our demo­cracy.

The United States is on the verge of a new paradigm for regis­ter­ing voters. A trans­form­at­ive policy innov­a­tion is already gain­ing ground: auto­matic regis­tra­tion of eligible voters. Univer­sal regis­tra­tion of all Amer­ic­ans is the ulti­mate goal of this approach, which would:

  • Add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, perman­ently;
  • Save money;
  • Increase accur­acy; and
  • Improve the secur­ity of our elec­tions.

This reform proposal has four compon­ents:

  • First, it digit­izes voter regis­tra­tion and shifts from an “opt in” to an “opt out.” When eligible citizens give inform­a­tion to agen­cies, they are auto­mat­ic­ally signed up to vote unless they choose to opt out.
  • Second, it makes sure that once citizens are signed up, they remain registered when they move within their states.
  • Third, it allows citizens to register to vote online.
  • Finally, it gives people the oppor­tun­ity to register or update their inform­a­tion at the polls.

The Bren­nan Center first proposed this nearly a decade ago. In the years since, we have seen real progress as many states have adop­ted compon­ents of reform. In 2015, Cali­for­nia and Oregon passed and signed break­through laws to auto­mat­ic­ally register voters when they inter­act with the DMV. So far in 2016, Vermont and West Virginia passed and signed such laws, both on a bipar­tisan basis. Connecti­cut became the fifth state to adopt this reform when it did so through agency action. Addi­tion­ally, a new federal bill, which would enact auto­matic regis­tra­tion at the national level and expand it to numer­ous govern­ment agen­cies, has been intro­duced in Congress.

Every citizen should have a fair and equal oppor­tun­ity to get, and stay, registered to vote. Citizens must take the respons­ib­il­ity to vote, but govern­ment should do its part by clear­ing bureau­cratic obstacles to the ballot box. Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion would vastly improve Amer­ican demo­cracy.