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We can advance voting rights for all Americans with Automatic Voter Registration

By George Hornedo, senior policy adviser, Let America Vote

With politicians all over the country these days pushing voter-suppression laws and undermining Americans’ fundamental rights, it’s tempting to think about voting rights activism as a purely defensive effort.

But it’s not. It’s important to remember that there are positive, forward-looking policies that even today many states are enacting to make it easier for eligible Americans to vote. As we push back against the vote suppressors, we must also uplift the voting-rights champions and the pro-democracy policies available to us.

From online and same-day voter registration to expanded early-voting opportunities, there’s a lot we can do to expand access to the ballot. But perhaps the single most meaningful policy we could pursue is automatic voter registration, also known as AVR.

So what exactly is AVR? It boils down to two significant changes to the way we register to vote.

First, eligible citizens who interact with government agencies (by, for example, going to the DMV to get a driver’s license) are automatically be registered to vote. Second, government agencies transfer voter-registration information to election officials, automatically updating data contained in voter records.

This convenient and cost-effective process increases registration rates, cleans up the voter rolls and reduces the risk of voter fraud. AVR removes barriers to registration, keeps voter-registration rolls updated, and may lead to higher voter turnout. It’s a policy every state should look into and one that’s received increased attention in recent years.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, thirteen states and the District of Columbia have currently approved the policy, meaning that over a third of Americans live in a jurisdiction that has either passed or implemented AVR. Those jurisdictions are Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

But the story of AVR starts with Oregon, which became the first state to pass the policy in March 2015 following the state’s record-low turnout of 42 percent in the 2014 midterm elections.

According to The Atlantic, in just the first six weeks after Oregon implemented its AVR program, only 7 percent of those who would’ve been registered under the program opted out, while more than 10,000 new voters were registered. Compare that to the previous monthly average of 2,000 new voters registered and the impact is clear. Officials estimate that the policy could add nearly 300,000 new voters to the 2.2 million already signed up in the state.

Further, a Demos report found that 44 percent of those automatically registered in Oregon in 2016 actually voted in the November elections, and that automatically-registered voters accounted for 66 percent of the individuals who registered and voted for the first time in 2016. The data clearly shows that AVR reaches new voters and expands the electorate. That’s a good thing for democracy.

And even beyond increasing turnout generally, Demos found that AVR also helped increase the racial, age and economic diversity of individuals who participated in the 2016 election. For example, 15 percent of individuals registered through AVR were people of color compared to 6 percent who registered through other means.

Since implementing AVR, Oregon’s registration rate increased from 78 percent of the voting-eligible population to 85 percent, and voter participation increased by 4 percentage points, from 64 percent of the voting-eligible population to 68 percent. With automatically-registered individuals comprising 5 percent of the Oregon electorate in 2016, Demos estimates that AVR increased voter participation by 2 to 3 percentage points.

In Nevada, the fate of AVR this year lies in the hands of its voters. In 2017, the state Assembly and Senate passed legislation to establish automatic voter registration, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it. But because the measure was brought forward as an initiative petition, it now goes to voters who can approve it directly in the November election.

While all the movement on AVR so far has happened at the state level, it’s also received attention nationally. In 2017, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., proposed legislation that would automatically register individuals based on information in federal databases from Social Security offices, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and public universities.

Moving to national AVR would put the United States in good company: the policy is already in place in most developed democracies including Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and France, all of which boast registration rates above 90 percent compared to 65 percent in the U.S. We encourage Democrats to make this legislation a priority in 2019.

Let’s work to increase access to the ballot box and build on the momentum AVR has seen in recent years. You can join our fight and help make it easier for every eligible voter to register and participate in our democracy by texting VOTE to 44939.