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Automatic Voter Registration Gaining Momentum

Automatic Voter Registration Gaining Momentum

While much recent attention has rightly been focused on the concerning trend of new voter suppression measures around the country, there is another, more positive, development in voting that has so far received relatively little press. Over the past year, five states have approved automatic voter registration systems, and bills to implement automatic registration were introduced in at least 20 other states during the 2016 legislative session.

Although it can vary from state to state, automatic voter registration generally follows a formula whereby the state government agrees to automatically register to vote anyone who interacts with a government institution, for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Whereas previously, citizens had been required to opt in to voter registration by filling out a series of forms, these new automatic registration laws ask that individuals opt out of being registered if they do not wish to appear on the rolls.

The limited evidence available so far suggests that automatic voter registration can significantly increase the number of registered voters in a state. Oregon was the first state to pass automatic voter registration in March 2015. The law went into effect in January 2016, and already Oregon has registered more than 50,000 new voters through its automatic system. Additionally, only around six percent of people eligible for automatic registration have chosen to opt out so far. In California, another state that has passed automatic voter registration, the new system could dramatically reduce the estimated six to seven million eligible citizens that remain unregistered to vote.

Still, automatic voter registration is not necessarily a panacea to cure the problem of low voter participation across the United States. Newly registered voters still have to actually get to the polls on Election Day, and voter restriction efforts like photo ID laws and reduced early voting time can limit their ability to do so. Furthermore, in Oregon, nearly 75 percent of people registered through the automatic system did not manually register with a political party, preventing them from participating in the state’s closed primary elections. So, while automatic voter registration is important on its own, voters must still be knowledgeable about the particular election laws and procedures in their states in order for the policy to have the greatest effect.

In the meantime, the move to automatic registration continues to gain momentum. In late May, the Illinois State Legislature passed an automatic voter registration bill with a veto-proof super majority. If Governor Bruce Rauner signs the bill into law, Illinois will become the sixth state to adopt automatic voter registration.

Automatic voter registration is an integral part of advancing easy and equal access to the ballot for all Americans. As Rabbi Yitzhak taught: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). Automatic voter registration provides a simple and effective way to ensure that all eligible community members are able to participate in the process of choosing the elected officials who govern them.

Click here to learn more about the RAC’s work to promote voting rights and civic engagement.

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters

Published: 6/09/2016