Since 1993, federal law has required motor vehicle departments and some other state agencies to offer people the opportunity to register to vote when they interact with them. Last year, Oregon became the first state in the country to automatically register people when they interact with the department of motor vehicles. The state’s elections division then sends a postcard giving residents the choice of opting out. The system added 375,000 voters to the state’s rolls in the first year and a half, including, by one estimate, at least 116,000 people who would not have registered on their own.
Nine other states and the District of Columbia have joined Oregon in passing laws to implement similar processes, often referred to as automatic voter registration, or AVR, though each state has slight variations. A new report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) estimated that 22 million people would be added to the rolls in the first year if every state in the country implemented Oregon’s system. That includes 9.5 million who would have been unlikely to become registered without the process.
The numbers provide more evidence of how powerful automatic voter registration could be. Since Oregon enacted the system, advocates see it as potentially transformative in bringing millions of Americans into the political process. Interest in the reform has risen amid President Donald Trump’s accusations of voter fraud and pushes by conservative legal groups to force election officials to purge voter rolls.
“Democracy works best when all voices are heard. AVR is a commonsense way to modernize the voter registration process, keep voter rolls up-to-date and secure, and remove obstacles to voter participation,” Liz Kennedy, CAP’s director of democracy and government reform and a co-author of the report, said in a statement. “The current system in most states, which puts the burden on individuals to get and stay registered, places an unnecessary barrier to voter participation. AVR is poised to bring millions of citizens into America’s political process.”
The report projects nearly 3 million voters could be added to the rolls in California, which is poised to implement automatic voter registration next year. It could also add nearly 1.6 million voters in Florida, a key state in the presidential election, and over 1.9 million voters in Texas, the report projected.
While Oregon’s system could add millions to the rolls, the state is seen as having one of the most robust and aggressive automatic systems. In Illinois, for example, people who are automatically registered at a motor vehicle agency must affirm they are citizens and they have the choice to opt out on the spot. In Oregon, people interacting with the DMV are simply signed up to register to vote (they have to prove their citizenship to get a driver’s license) and then given the opportunity to opt-out later.
There’s no evidence yet that automatic voter registration benefits one political party, and there has been some bipartisan support for it. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed a bill in August after vetoing a similar measure a year ago. The measure Rauner signed passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously. In West Virginia, Republicans also passed an automatic voter registration law, though it was wedded to a voter ID measure. Georgia, where there is a Republican governor and secretary of state, also quietly changed its voter registration process administratively to become opt-out in 2016. As of now, 32 states are considering automatic voter registration bills, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.