Common Cause Massachusetts 2016 Testimony in Support of Automatic Voter Registration

January 19, 2016

Testimony in Support of H. 3937

Automatic Voter Registration

Pam Wilmot, Executive Director, Common Cause Massachusetts

Joint Committee on Election Laws

January 19, 2016

The United States is one of the most geographically mobile countries in the world, with nearly one in six Americans changing their address every year, and with the lowest voter registration rates among the other industrialized democracies.[1] Political scientists credit our comparatively low voter turnout rates to Americans’ high mobility and appreciably more difficult voter registration systems. Other industrialized democracies utilize automatic and permanent voter registration in order to keep their voter rolls up-to-date and to ensure that every eligible citizen is able to vote. As a result, in other countries the average gap between turnout among the registered population and voting age population is 3.4 percentage points. In the United States, the gap is nearly three times higher.

In 2012, 1 out of 4 eligible United States citizens, or approximately 51 million people, were not registered to vote, according to the Pew Research Center. Here in Massachusetts, our registration rates are somewhat better, but close to 700,000 eligible citizens are still not registered to vote. If all of these people register, it would add a new population of voters greater than the size of Boston.

The potential for increasing participation by increasing registration is therefore huge. The voter turnout among all eligible citizens was only 62 percent in 2012; but the rate of voter turnout of people registered to vote was close to 87 percent in 2012.

For those of us in stable living situations, who are already engaged in the political process, registering to vote may not seem like a big burden. However, for highly mobile populations, the burden increases substantially. Deadlines of 20 days before the election can come and go before potential voters are able to enroll or re-enroll. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2014:

• 4.1 million Americans who tried to register to vote were prevented from registering by registration deadlines.

• Another 1.9 million could not add themselves to the voter rolls because they did not know where or how to register.

• Language barriers prevented almost 735,000 Americans from registering. [2]

If every state followed the lead of Oregon, which has established the first automatic voter registration system in the country, and California, which also adopted automatic voter registration in 2015, the think-tank Demos calculates that approximately 27 million people would immediately gain access to elections.

Automatic voter registration (AVR) is an electoral reform whereby a state takes on the responsibility to register eligible individuals to vote by capturing the information needed for voter registration– such as age, citizenship, residence, etc. – during agency transactions and then automatically registering the citizen to vote. Those who are eligible to vote, according to federal and state standards, are then included in the state’s voter registration rolls. Typically, they are then notified by the state they have been registered, and are informed of what action(s) must be taken in order to register with a party (a necessity for primary elections in some states) and/or to decline being on the registration rolls if they do not want to register. During transactions at the agency(ies) capturing relevant information, unlike current practice, individuals are not asked specifically whether they would like to register to vote at this time, but rather are assessed, based on the information provided during the transaction, as to their eligibility. Based on this information, the state then registers only those who are eligible to vote, unless they specifically decline. Often there is a follow-up mail confirmation.

In short, it turns an opt-in system to an opt-out one. Research indicates that individuals are more likely to accept certain benefits/services, if they are required to opt out rather than opt into a process. AVR requires the government to take the more proactive action, and would result in more registrations than an opt-in model could produce. Additional educational campaigns, initiated by government or advocacy groups, could very well enhance participation rates.[3]

Our democracy works best when more people are able to make their voices heard. People who move around the most in our society—the unemployed, young people, and renters[4]—are the same citizens who have the lowest rates of voter turnout and are among the highest rates of disenfranchisement. Automatic voter registration knocks down many barriers that work to prevent these citizens from voting.

The legislation also includes a provision to require Massachusetts to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, which will improve the accuracy and integrity of our voting lists by comparing them with national and other member states databases. This is the subject of stand-alone testimony for H. 582 (heard in October)

Automatic voter registration will increase voter participation, help ensure election integrity, and modernize the Massachusetts election registration process. We urge you to give the bill a favorable report.

[1] Skaggs, Adam and Jonathan Blitzer. 2009. “Permanent Voter Registration.” Brennan Center for Justice. Available at

[2] United States Census via Demos. Current Population Survey, November 2014: Voting and Registration Supplement, generated using DataFerrett. (Aug. 25, 2015).

[3] See “Election Reforms and Voter Turnout Among Low Propensity Voting Groups,” Tova Andrea Wang, Apr. 8, 2015.

[4] Ihrke, David K. and Carol S. Faber. December 2012. “Geographic Mobility: 2005 to 2010.” United States Census Bureau. Available at


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