In 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral vote, and therefore the presidency, because of fewer than 80,000 people spread over 3 states; about the same population as Scranton, Pennsylvania. While there are many ways to analyze this narrow margin, the most important may be that elections can be decided by a small number of votes. This fact makes it increasingly important that governments ensure every eligible citizen has the ability to conveniently vote. When 80,000 people can decide a national election, any obstacle that inhibits citizens from voting can drastically change who our representatives are. One recent effort in several states is automatic voter registration. While not the solution to all voting problems, it is a worthwhile first step towards greater voter turnout.
In 2015, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration.Since then, 12 more states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar legislation. Most recently, in August of 2018, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed an automatic registration bill into law. Automatic voter registration laws change the traditional opt-in registration methods into opt-out plans. The Massachusetts law, for instance, requires automatic registration for anyone who completes a transaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or signs up for state healthcare (MassHealth), unless they opt-out of registration . The law will take full effect in January 2020, in time for the next presidential election.
Because automatic voter registration is a relatively new design model, the research into whether or not it actually increases voter turnout is limited. However, the initial research from the Center for American Politics (CAP) seems positive. According to early numbers, of the 272,000 people in Oregon who were registered through the automatic system, more than 1/3 of them (approximately 98,000 people)voted in the 2016 election . This same data also suggests that Oregon’s automatic registration law has created a potential pool of voters who are more representative of the age, income, and ethnicity of the state’s residents. At the very least, there is clear and conclusive evidence to confirm that automatic voter registration will definitely increase the number of people who have the option of voting in the next election. Since 2016, Oregon’s registration rates have quadrupled at state DMV offices. There have been similar results in Vermont where, after only six months of its new system, registration rates rose 62% from the previous year . While the effect remains to be seen in Massachusetts, officials estimate that approximately 680,000 new voters will be registered because of the bill.
Despite these promising results, automatic voter registration has not been without its critics. Opponents are concerned about various issues such as fraud, duplicate registrations, and accidental enfranchisement for undocumented immigrants. Proponents believe that these concerns, however, are largely unfounded. To combat the risk of fraud and duplicate registrations, many states conduct their automatic registration through multiple governmental agencies that can all supply and confirm correct identifying information (such as changed addresses or last names). The Massachusetts law allows registration through two different agencies and also requires the state to link with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC); a third-party nonprofit that will update and report changed voter information to the state. Concerns of accidental registration of undocumented immigrants are most heightened in places such as California, which allows undocumented residents to obtain drivers licenses while also providing automatic registration through the DMV. Election officials in California, however, state that all automatic registrations in California are cross referenced with voter eligibility databases the ensure that this fear cannot come to fruition.
Proponents of automatic voter registration argue that while the potential negative side effects of these laws are negligible, the benefits are huge. Automatic registration is a small, but highly effective, tool to help protect the most vulnerable from having their voting rights infringed upon. One important example of this can be found in the state of Georgia. Georgia has had automatic voter registration through the Department of Driver Services (DDS) since September of 2016. Prior to adopting automatic registration, the state required voter applications to meet extremely strict “precise match” requirements. Under these precise match requirements, applications ccould be held or rejected if they did not precisely match the information the state already had on file for that person. Applications were held up for trivial issues such as missing hyphens or a signature that looked slightly different. In 2016, The Secretary of state ended these precise match requirements just as the state began implementing automatic voter registration.
During the 2018 midterm election Secretary of State Brian Kemp reinstated the practice of requiring precise match’s for voter registration and absentee ballots. This requirement caused widespread rejection of absentee ballots and mailed in voter registration applications– more than 53,000 ballots and applications because of precise match reasons. While 32% of residents in Georgia are black, approximately 70% of the rejected applications were from black residents. This seemingly suggests that one of the greatest issues with automatic voter registration is simply that it doesn’t do enough on its own to prevent voter suppression.
While automatic registration can effect great change in terms of the number of people who are registered to vote, it is only a beginning, and not an end, to improve the problem of voter suppression and voter turnout. The decision whether or not to vote is almost as personal as the decision of who to vote for. All citizens should have the right to choose whether they want to vote in any particular election. When state laws and policies make it difficult for people to register, the government ends up taking the decision out of the hands of too many Americans. The move towards easier registration is an important one. For a country whose elections are decided by so few votes, it’s imperative that anyone who wants to vote, gets to.