As Automatic Voter Registration Gains Momentum, States Grapple with Question of Duplicates

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill that places Massachusetts among a growing number of states making it hard to not be registered.

by Candice Norwood, Governing / August 10, 2018
(MCT/Los Angeles Times/Irfan Khan)

Oregon was the first state, in 2015, to adopt an automatic voter registration (AVR) system. Since then, 12 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws, and 20 states this year have introduced automatic voting registration proposals, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Massachusetts House approved the bill 130-20 in June, and the state Senate unanimously passed it two weeks later.

"People who believe in government of all political stripes want it to run effectively and efficiently," says Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts. "In this era where there’s so much concern about trust in government and trust in the election system, it’s certainly great to see a bipartisan effort coming out of Massachusetts."

Under the new law, eligible citizens will be automatically registered to vote — unless they opt out — when they interact with the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles or health-care system MassHealth. Most states currently have what’s known as an “opt-in” system, which places responsibility on citizens to either register online or to find a nearby registration location.

As life gets in the way, registering in time for an election can be a burden, particularly with Massachusetts’ policy requiring people to register at least 20 days before an election, says Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of the advocacy group MassVOTE.

Advocates of automatic voter registration believe it allows for a more updated, secure and fair system. But not everyone agrees.

If elected, Anthony Amore, a Republican candidate for Massachusetts secretary of state, would be responsible for helping to implement AVR.

"I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against voter participation," says Amore. "My concern is how cities and towns will deal with this information. ... Because people have to opt out of this rather than opting in, I anticipate that there will be a large amount of duplicates."

Other Republicans have raised concerns over possible voter fraud stemming from duplicate or outdated information, registration of non-citizens, and threats to data security.

One way to mitigate duplicates and keep information updated if a voter changes addresses or dies is to pull data from a number of agencies, says Jonathan Brater, counsel for the Brennan Center. By including MassHealth and the RMV, Massachusetts is in a better position than the states that only use their motor vehicle registries. But Maryland’s system, which will take effect in 2019, is the most comprehensive, pulling from the DMV as well as local social services agencies and the state health benefits exchange.

A provision of the Massachusetts law also requires the state to join the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit group with 23 states and the District of Columbia as members with the goal of improving the accuracy of voter rolls. ERIC alerts states when a voter has moved either within or between states and identifies when someone might be eligible and unregistered.

But does automatic voter registration actually increase voter participation?

The best example to assess at the moment is Oregon. Prior to the 2016 general election, Oregon registered about 230,000 voters through the automatic system. About 36 percent of them turned out for the election. By contrast, 80.3 percent of the state's total registered voters cast a ballot that November, according to a state summary.

Although people automatically registered to vote are less likely to show up to the polls than people who actively choose to register, many see the Oregon numbers as a success because more people voted overall.

MassVOTE’s Crawford praises automatic voter registration as “the first step” in increasing political participation. She also wants to see the state establish a same-day registration policy — something 17 states and the District of Columbia have. In the meantime, she hopes the energy her team spent working to register people can now be dedicated to educating them on the issues and motivating them to vote.

This story was originally published by Governing.