Why Automatic Voter Registration Is Good for America, Democracy, and You

House Democrats' first bill in the 116th Congress will reportedly include provisions for automatic voter registration. Here's what that would mean, and why the policy is long overdue.

As Democrats count down the days until they take the speaker's gavel for the first time in eight years, they are wasting no time getting down to the business of legislating. According to NPR, the House's first vote in the 116th Congress will be on an omnibus bill that overturns Citizens United, depoliticizes the redistricting process, and closes loopholes in government ethics law—ones that happen to accrue to the untold benefit of a certain President of the United States.

The bill would also implement automatic voter registration—a policy already in place in 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures—on a nationwide basis. That isn't the reform proposal that Republicans are most afraid of; that would probably be the anti-gerrymandering provision, which is a direct threat to one of the GOP's primary tools for retaining political power. But AVR, if enacted, might have the greatest long-term impact on how American democracy works.

What is automatic voter registration?

A pretty simple concept, actually: A federal law in place since the Clinton administration requires state agencies—so, departments of motor vehicles, primarily—to provide residents with the "opt-in" opportunity to register to vote when filling out paperwork. Usually, this takes the form of a little box on your application to renew a driver license. By checking it, you authorize the agency to update your voter registration information, or, if you're new to the state, to enter your name into the rolls. If you don't check it, you remain registered at your old address, or, if you're new to the state, not at all.

"Automatic voter registration" means switching to an opt-out structure; by default, everyone who interacts with a state agency is automatically registered to vote, unless you check the little box, which directs state employees not to update your information. Most AVR schemes also do away with paperwork, and instead instruct agencies to electronically submit information to the relevant election officials.

What isn't automatic voter registration?

"Mandatory" voter registration. AVR does not force anyone to vote, or require anyone to register to vote, or disclose anyone's personal information to state officials without their consent. It simply streamlines the registration process, and makes it a little more likely that a few more people are eligible to participate in elections by the time the next one rolls around.

What are the arguments in favor of AVR?

Look at the headlines—they're all right there. In Georgia, the office of secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp placed registration holds on tens of thousands of applications over minor discrepancies in things like spelling and hyphenation, and has purged some 1.4 million voters from the rolls since 2012, citing to "maintenance." In Texas, a set of archaic and arcane rules makes it functionally impossible to conduct large-scale registration drives. Some states require prospective voters to register a month before Election Day, which means that constituents who don't carefully plan out their participation in the democratic process effectively waive their right to do so. AVR would reduce the burdens imposed by obstacles like these, and make it more likely that anyone who wants to cast a ballot can procure an "I Voted" sticker of their very own.

What are the arguments against AVR?

Let's see: In a 2016 Washington Times opinion piece, Robert Knight calls AVR an "act of a top-down, authoritarian government" that infringes on the free speech rights of those who would "express[] displeasure with the electoral process by not participating." Or, as Jeff Jacoby put it in a Boston Globe column titled "The arrogance of automatic voter registration" earlier this year:

The right to vote is undeniably precious; so is the right to tune out politics and politicians. The evidence shows that when citizens are motivated to vote, they register. When they aren’t motivated, they don’t. In a free society, both impulses should be respected.

Knight also worries that AVR is a slippery slope to forced voting—a concern echoed by Maryland Republican Party executive director Joe Cluster to The Atlantic:

“It’s a waste of money, because we already have the mechanisms for people to vote and register to vote,” Cluster said. “There is nothing that stops someone being registered to vote other than that person not wanting to be registered to vote.” He also warned that automatic registration would eventually lead to compulsory voting and fining people who don't turn out, like in Australia. “Are we going to do that next?” Cluster asked.

Wait. You just said that automatic voter registration isn't the same as mandatory voter registration.

It isn't.

How does being registered to vote affect one's ability to "express displeasure with the electoral process by not participating" in a given election, or in any election?

It doesn't.

And can't conscientious objectors just check the box to opt out of voter registration altogether?

They could.

Okay. This feels like a stupid question, but...why on earth would anyone actually be opposed to this, then?

Because there is at least some evidence that increased voter participation leads to more Democratic wins. It is the same reason that the GOP pushes voter ID laws in the name of combating "election fraud," a problem that does not exist. It is why it consolidates and closes polling sites and opposes same-day registration, and why logistical problems with casting ballots have a peculiar habit of popping up in heavily Democratic and minority areas: Central to the success of Republican and/or conservative politics is controlling who votes in elections and who does not.

Not all Republicans feel this way. As noted by PolitiFact's Louis Jacobson at Governing, some GOP-controlled state legislatures have followed the lead of deep-blue states like California, Illinois, and Washington by moving forward with AVR in the last few years.

In general, though, AVR is at odds with conservative orthodoxy. In 1992, after President George H.W. Bush vetoed an early version of the "opt-in" law, Mitch McConnell applauded that choice as a refusal to "tailor our voter registration laws to political couch potatoes." Any policy that expands the electorate is one that reduces the GOP's political power, and so it is willing to subvert democratic values in order to avoid that risk.

Are AVR's opponents right to oppose it on this basis? Would the policy really only benefit Democrats?

Not necessarily. There is just too much uncertainty surrounding this conventional wisdom for it to be anything more than, well, conventional wisdom. A 2017 study of Oregon's AVR scheme found that it led to increased registration rates among several different demographic groups, some of which are traditionally linked with Democrats and some of which are traditionally linked with Republicans. And as Jacobson notes, there are many more unregistered white voters than there are unregistered minority voters out there, which suggests that universal AVR could be good for both major parties—a political wash.

Is the alleviation of registration barriers the most important method of boosting civic engagement?

No. Registering people to vote does not, as its opponents frequently point out, mean that those people will actually show up on Election Day, which is the biggest and most vexing challenge of all. Jacoby cites to data collected by the Census Bureau in 2016, in which non-voters report explain their reasons for not voting: because they didn't like the candidates (24.8 percent), or were too busy (14.3 percent), or just weren't interested (15.4 percent.) Only 4.4 percent of those surveyed blamed their no-show on difficulties with the registration process.

That last number is a lot smaller than the first three. But let's say those numbers accurately reflect voters' motivations, and that they hold on a national scale. If instituting this policy would mean that 4.4 percent of this country's population that wants to participate in democracy could actually participate in democracy, without affecting the ability of disinterested Americans to opt out of the process, it's hard to argue in good faith that AVR is, as Jacoby concludes, a "lousy idea." Voter apathy is a difficult problem for which there may very well be no constitutional solution. Bureaucratic disenfranchisement is a relatively easy one to try and fix, and Democrats are right to make AVR a priority—no matter which party it would benefit.

Is it a little cynical to be talking this much about which political party might gain the most from a policy that, at its core, simply makes it easier for Americans to exercise their right to vote? Isn't this just the right thing to do?

Yes, and yes.