Stop The Madness: It’s Time to Pass Automatic Voter Registration

By Daniel Holt, Equal Citizens Research Intern

The 2018 midterm elections are less than three months away and grassroots organizations are now laser-focused on registering voters. An effort backed by Our Lives, Our Vote — an organization formed in response to the Parkland shooting — for example, has spent $1.75 million on voter registration alone.

There are good reasons for such a focus. Low voter registration rates are a main culprit for low turnout rates in elections. And the U.S. voter registration and turnout rates are particularly abysmal. Only 60.0% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 presidential election. In the 2014 midterm elections only 35.9% did so. Turnout is even worse among younger voters; only 28% of Americans aged 18-to-29 are certain they will vote this year. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 21.4% of eligible voters were not registered in 2014.

These numbers are even more strikingly bad when compared to turnout and registration rates of other developed countries. In the most recent elections for which data is available in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, the voter registration rates are 94.36%, 96.28%, and 93.54% respectively. And in each country, voter turnout was significantly higher: 81.9%, 85.81%, and 85.89%.

Voter registration rates in the US are so disturbingly low, in large part, because we have a voluntary registration system with no federal guidelines for the states. As such, many state legislatures make it difficult for voters — especially low-income voters and people of color — to register, often to gain unfair advantage for their party.

Take Texas. The state has no online registration system, and restrictive policies make it nearly impossible to conduct voter registration drives — e.g. there are excessive training and local residency requirements for those who want to register potential voters. And when activist groups comply with the state’s draconian limitations, they can still face oppressive tactics. After a pro-democracy group called Houston Votes sent in 25,000 registration forms in 2010, a majority of which came from working class people of color, Tea Party members accused the group of voter fraud. In response, then-Attorney General and current Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered a raid of the group’s office in addition to the destruction of its records and computers, forcing Houston Votes to cease operations.

Or Georgia. The state passed a law in 2017 dictating that registration forms must match verbatim with the voter’s DMV and social security records. A single, miniscule difference between a registration form and government record places the potential voter on a “pending” voter list. This list, unsurprisingly, targets far more black voters than white voters despite Georgia’s majority-white population. Georgia, along with Kansas, and Alabama, pushed the limits of repressive voter registration laws even further when it added a requirement that voters provide documentary proof of citizenship in order to register. This policy was blocked in court.

There is a simple way to fix our voter registration crisis — one that will end the madness of organizations spending millions of dollars every election cycle to register voters and prevent states from suppressing registration rates — automatic voter registration (AVR). AVR changes the registration process from “opt-in” to “opt-out.” In other words, as with most other countries with high registration rates, the burden to register to vote would be shifted from the individual to the government. Under AVR, whenever an eligible individuals interacts with a participating government agency, they are automatically registered to vote (or, if they are already registered, they will have their existing information updated). Any citizen can opt-out of the program if they so choose.

AVR has already been adopted in thirteen states and D.C., and the policy has proven extremely effective. In Vermont, in the first six months of the program, the state processed 12,344 new and updated registrations through the DMV — far more than the 7,626 processed during the six months before AVR’s implementation. In AVR’s first year in Oregon, more than 272,000 new voters were automatically registered, including more than 116,000 people who were unlikely to have registered otherwise, and more than 40,000 of those 116,000+ voted in the November 2016 election. Compared to already-registered voters, automatic registrants are notably younger and come from poorer, less educated, and more racially diverse communities. If the entire country adopts AVR, our voting population will become more representative of our country’s actual demographics.

These new voters can make a huge difference in election outcomes, especially in close races. In the 2012 presidential election, ten states were decided by 1.3 million votes. In those states, 19.5 million eligible citizens were not registered. Analysts at Demos predict that AVR would add 6.8 million potential voters in those ten states, well above the margin of victory.

There’s a good news: momentum for AVR is growing. Earlier this month, Massachusetts became the sixth state just this year to adopt the program. And the Massachusetts law goes further than most previous AVR programs, registering voters through the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth, the state’s public health care program — the latter serving the precise constituencies AVR bills seek to enfranchise.

AVR is a no-brainer, but, still, it has fierce opposition. AVR bills were blocked in 22 other states during the previous legislative term. Critics of AVR are quick to spread fear, promulgating the “dangers” of making it easier for citizens to vote. Chief among these myths is the notion that voter fraud is widespread in our elections and that AVR would exacerbate it. However, a 2007 report from the Brennan Center indicates an incidence rate of voter fraud between 0.0003% and 0.0025%. Countless more recent studies confirm this finding. AVR would not lead to fraud; rather, it would likely reduce the possibility of fraud even further, as government officials would no longer have to pour over paper forms, decipher handwriting, and manually enter voter registration information into their database. Research shows that electronic registration dramatically improves the accuracy and security of voter registration.

Moreover, while AVR opponents contend that it would be expensive to implement, AVR is actually cheaper to use because automation requires fewer government resources. For instance, the Delaware State Election Commission noted a $200,000 decrease in labor spending in the first year after the state began sending data from the DMV to election officials electronically instead of with paper. In addition, this move reduced DMV client transaction times by two-thirds and decreased the state’s next elections budget proposal by $50,000.

If we truly want a functional 21st century democracy, it’s time to implement a federal AVR requirement. And fortunately there is already a bill to do exactly that: the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017 (S.1353). Introduce by Senator Patrick Leahy, this bill would integrate numerous federal and state agencies into the voter registration process through data-sharing requirements with election authorities. Whenever an eligible individual interacts with an eligible national governmental agency (such as the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs), that person will automatically be registered.

A national AVR law would allow millions more Americans to have a say in our democracy, making our government more accountable to the American people. That’s why Equal Citizens started a petition to support S.1353. Please show your support for a 21st century democracy by signing and sharing with your friends and family.

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