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Research Report

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 But millions of eligible citizens are blocked from the polls, most often by an outdated and error-prone voter registration system.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.