A Spirited Debate on the Legitimacy of the Automatic Vote Registration
Automating Voter Registration Will Remove Barriers to Voting While Preventing Fraud
By Kristin Eberhard – Director, Democracy & Climate, Sightline Institute
The Problem with America’s Voter Rolls
These days it appears Democrats are trying to make sure everyone can vote, while Republicans are worrying about preventing voter fraud. Although you would never know it from reading the headlines, there are things that states can do to promote both goals at the same time. Modern voter registration systems make voting easier and more secure.
All states except North Dakota keep a list of eligible voters and then check that list to ensure that each vote cast comes from one eligible voter. It is a sensible method for confirming voters’ eligibility. But, depending on the state, it can create a lot of red tape for Americans who want to exercise their right to vote. Especially for those turning 18 and trying to get on the voting list for the first time and those who need to move a lot, getting registered and keeping their voter registration up to date can be a lot of work. If you are starting a new job, moving your family into a new house, or getting all your new utilities set up, filling out the proper paperwork to re-register to vote at your new address is not your top priority. Yet, if you forget to do it in time, you might get turned away the next time you try to vote.
Some states use outdated methods of maintaining voter lists, creating more problems. Incomplete or inaccurate lists are a way that some people fear fraud could creep in. They imagine an individual registering to vote in their county and then moving to a new county and registering there and fraudulently casting two votes, one in each county. Although this type of fraud is unproven, states would do best to stamp out the fear about it happening by using proven practices for keeping voter lists complete and accurate. If officials can ensure that voters are registered only at their current address, there is no concern about them voting twice. If a voter tries to go back to their old polling place to vote, they will be turned away if they are no longer on the list there.
Automatic Voter Registration and Voter Databases
Twenty states plus D.C. have adopted a secure and modern system to automatically register eligible voters who have proven their citizenship; those states then keep their registration up-to-date. These states use information from the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies and cross-reference it to ensure that eligible voters are on the voter rolls at their current address.
Automatic voter registration gives voters a smooth voting experience free of unnecessary paperwork or surprise barriers. Voters get a notice in the mail with the location of their current polling place. When they show up, poll workers find their names on the list and cross them off. This system is also easier on poll workers because voters are at their correct and current polling place. This means less confusion, fewer provisional ballots, and shorter wait times. For voters who have requested to vote absentee or live in a state where everyone votes at home, their ballot arrives at their current address, where they can fill it out and submit it. Here too, modern registration is more efficient, because ballots get mailed to voters’ current addresses, not an outdated address from an outdated list.
It is easier for the voter and more secure. Concerned citizens in these states can be confident that no one is registered twice because every voter’s address automatically updates to only the most recent.
Combine automatic voter registration with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), of which 30 states plus DC are now members, and you get squeaky clean voter rolls that prevent fraud. ERIC member states compare voter lists to death certificates, change of address notices, and other member states’ lists to ensure they remove anyone who has passed away or moved away from the list, so only current voters remain.
Some Republicans are concerned that making it easy to vote may lead to low “quality” votes from “uninformed” voters. It is questionable whether being able to jump through hoops to vote necessarily means one is more informed. But in any case, automatic voter registration may help lead to more informed voters. Because there are so many eligible voters who are not registered to vote or whose registration is not up to date, many civic groups expend resources just getting people registered and updated. In states with automatic voter registration, nearly everyone who wants to be registered is (people who do not want to be registered can opt out). This frees civic groups and voters themselves to turn their attention to engaging on the issues. If every state were to modernize its voter registration process, the millions of staff and volunteer hours now spent on voter registration drives could be spent on voter information drives. Voters could turn up at the polls and not only be on the right list but also be more familiar with the issues at stake.
Secure and modern voter rolls through automatic voter registration make voting easier for citizens, administration smoother for election officials, and election security clearer for those concerned about fraud. Nearly half the states have already implemented it, and hopefully, the other half will soon follow.
It Is Not the Government’s Job to Turn Americans Into Voters
By Jeff Jacoby – Op-Ed Columnist, The Boston Globe
A History of Automatic Voter Registration
In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act. The new law, popularly dubbed the “Motor Voter Act,” required states to provide an opportunity for voter registration to anyone applying for (or renewing) a driver’s license. It also required states to allow citizens to register to vote by mail.
The Motor Voter Act was the first major step on the road to automatic voter registration, or AVR. For more than a quarter of a century, there has been a steady push, mainly by Democrats, to make the process of registering to vote so effortless and routine that the only way not to be entered on the voting rolls is to formally opt out. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, voter registration is automatic in 20 states plus the District of Columbia. Activists and lawmakers are currently working to get other states, such as Delaware and Hawaii, to join the bandwagon.
Does AVR Make Voter Rolls More Accurate?
Supporters of automatic registration offer two broad arguments in its favor. The first argument is that it is much more efficient and accurate than the traditional method of letting would-be voters register themselves by mailing in an application or filling one out at town hall. By making registration an automatic function of the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies, advocates say, voters do not have to bother with paperwork and the election process is not hampered by out-of-date information.
But is that true? The notion that putting the government in charge of something will keep it aboveboard and error-free is disproved all the time. Journalists, nonprofit watchdogs, and public-sector inspectors general uncover fresh illustrations of government bungling and inefficiency on almost a daily basis. Is it really likely that automatic voter registration will ensure squeaky clean voter rolls that prevent fraud? Hardly.
Consider California’s experience. In 2018, the Golden State began automatically signing up anyone who went to the DMV to register a car or get a license as a voter. Within a year, state officials discovered that they had made at least 105,000 registration errors. “Some customers were registered with the wrong party,” reported the Sacramento Bee. “Others who wished to opt out of the program were nevertheless signed up. At least one non-citizen was added to the voter rolls, and the Secretary of State’s Office is continuing to investigate whether more non-citizens were included.”
Pennsylvania encountered similar problems. “It would be nice to have confidence in Pennsylvania’s voter rolls,” the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized in 2018, but — because of AVR — “we can’t.” The paper noted that thousands of Pennsylvanians, lawful residents but not citizens, had been automatically registered as voters when they obtained a driver’s license. This was not a case of fraud — many of those registered voters, in fact, voluntarily contacted elections officials to have their registrations canceled, since they knew they were ineligible to vote. But the experience of California and Pennsylvania makes it pretty clear that automatic voter registration does not guarantee squeaky clean voter rolls: quite the opposite.
None of this came as a surprise to me. When Motor Voter was first enacted in the 1990s, I decided to test the ability of the system to screen out inappropriate voters. Taking advantage of the law’s register-by-mail option, I enrolled my cat as a voter in three different states — Ohio, Illinois, and Massachusetts. The cat’s registration was promptly approved in each of those jurisdictions, and absentee ballots were duly sent out to the addresses I had provided. I did not cast those ballots, but I described in a column how easy it had been to game the system. Even after that column was published, the cat’s name continued to appear on the voter rolls in those states for several years before finally being purged.
The Myth of Difficulty Voting
All this would be enough to doom automatic voter registration if efficiency and accuracy were the real motivation behind it. But the true impetus behind AVR is to make the process of becoming a voter so easy as to require, quite literally, no thought or effort. The idea is that no one should have to overcome any hurdle, however trivial, to register to vote. And that, in turn, is driven by the conviction — this is the second argument — that the surest evidence of a healthy democracy is high voter registration and election turnout rates, and that more people would participate in elections if only it were easier to do so.
But it is easy to do so. In the 21st century, there are no serious obstacles to becoming a registered voter and casting a ballot. Granted, millions of Americans do not vote. But that is not because the process is too difficult. It is because, by and large, they choose not to vote.
That is not a guess: It is a conclusion backed up by evidence. After each election, the Census Bureau compiles data on nonvoters, and those data invariably confirm that only a modest fraction of Americans say they did not vote because they had trouble registering. (In 2020, only 4.9 percent of respondents gave that reason for not taking part in the election.) Far more Americans explain candidly that they do not vote because they did not like the candidates or issues (14.5 percent), they were too busy (13.1 percent), they simply were not interested (17.6 percent), or they forgot (13 percent).
Participation in the political process is unquestionably a priceless benefit of American citizenship. For that reason, so is the right not to participate. Does that sound paradoxical? It shouldn’t. Just as Americans’ freedom of religion encompasses the freedom to shun religion, just as their right of free speech includes the right to keep silent, so, too, the privilege of becoming a voter and taking part in elections is meaningless unless we have a corresponding privilege to ignore politics and politicians and have nothing to do with the electoral process.
Political Participation Should be a Choice
Voting is an American birthright, not an American duty. The government has no right to override the choice made by millions of citizens who prefer to tune out elections and steer clear of the electoral carnival. For those of us who choose to register and vote — personally, I never miss an election — our laws make the process utterly simple. But that choice must be made freely. The push for automatic voter registration diminishes our freedom by condescendingly presuming that men and women in a democracy are incapable of deciding for themselves whether to participate in democratic exercises.
Would any of us agree that Americans should be automatically signed up as members of a church, subscribers to a newspaper, or donors to a charity? Not likely. Being automatically entered on the voting rolls is no different.
Registering to vote is not hard. But whether to do so is a decision that belongs to each citizen, not to the state. It is not Big Brother’s job to turn Americans into voters. Automatic voter registration is a bad idea that has already gone too far and ought to go no further.
In Response to Mr. Jeff Jacoby
By Kristin Eberhard – Director, Democracy & Climate, Sightline Institute–
I have good news for Mr. Jacoby. Your cat will not be able to register to vote through automatic voter registration. Despite pointing out the limitations of antiquated voter registration systems, Mr. Jacoby argues against making improvements. Here’s where I disagree:
Yes, secure and modern automatic voter registration does make voter rolls more accurate
More than a quarter-century ago, Mr. Jacoby tested voter registration systems by trying to register his cat. He found three jurisdictions that allowed him. Those sorts of errors by election officials are a big part of the reason that 19 states have adopted a secure and modern system: automatically sending digitized information about eligible voters who have proven their identity and citizenship at a government agency over to election officials who can use that info to update their voter lists. Since cats can’t prove their citizenship at a DMV, states with this system would foil Mr. Jacoby’s would-be fraud. (Note that the incidence of someone actually casting a fraudulent vote is vanishingly rare).
Digitization improves accuracy. Paper registration forms are five times more likely to have errors than electronic files. Typos from clerks translating paper forms into the voter database can prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote. Places that use electronic information see more accurate lists and fewer calls from voters complaining about registration problems.
Government officials are in charge of voter lists, whether those lists are created through paper forms or digital processes. Converting outdated paper forms to modern and efficient digital processes doesn’t create more opportunities for clerical errors. It improves accuracy.
For some people, registering to vote is not easy
Mr. Jacoby claims that registering to vote is easy. For him, maybe. But not for all Americans, particularly younger voters. Young people may be getting registered for the first time and may also be in a stage of life when they are moving a lot and need to re-register each time they move. For them, not being registered to vote is by far the number one reason for not voting. It’s not surprising that making voter registration easier increases turnout for all age groups, but particularly for younger voters.
Of all Americans who didn’t vote in November 2020, 15 percent say they would have liked to vote but couldn’t because of registration difficulties. Mr. Jacoby cites that 5 percent of people who are registered to vote but did not cast a ballot because they had problems registering. He ignores the people who never managed to register in the first place. Adding them all up, it turns out that around 11 million Americans are eligible to vote and interested in doing so but blocked by archaic registration processes that stop them from voting. We can and should modernize those processes to give all Americans the freedom to vote, or not, as they choose.
Which brings us to . . .
Yes, voting is a choice
Mr. Jacoby agrees that voting is an American birthright. But he assumes that, because registering to vote is easy for him, any American who doesn’t vote must be making a choice not to exercise that birthright. The data above says that’s not the case. Many Americans want to vote, choose to vote, show up to vote, but are blocked by outdated paperwork. So really what Mr. Jacoby is saying is: only that subset of Americans who have already navigated the intricacies of the bureaucracy should have the choice to vote and all others should have no choice but to not vote.
If we all agree that voting is a birthright and all eligible Americans should be able to choose to use it, we should let everyone make that choice for themselves. If every state does what 19 are already doing — automatically register to vote any resident who proves their citizenship and use digital records to keep voter rolls clean, accurate, and up-to-date — everyone could make their choice about voting on Election Day, not 30 days before.
In states with secure and modern voter registration, eligible people who want to vote will still have to choose to vote. They still have to find their polling place, show up on time, bring appropriate ID, and wait in line. But once they’ve done all that, they can vote. Those who don’t want to vote can choose not to.
Automatically updating voters’ information doesn’t take away their choice of whether to vote or not. It gives them the choice.
This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Constitutional Questions” series, covering a range of political topics fundamental to the U.S. Constitution and democratic institutions. Through this series, we ask constitutional scholars, journalists, elected officials, and activists to discuss how these ideals are – and are not – implemented today. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.