Delivering on Automatic Voter Registration’s Promise: Implementation Lessons from the States

Automatic voter registration, as a policy, has captured the attention of U.S. lawmakers and democracy advocates. Building on the legacy of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, AVR has revitalized the ideal that voting in America should be a right — one that our government guarantees and facilitates, while ensuring a safeguarded system that we can all have faith in.

Research and Reports

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Automatic voter registration (AVR) has emerged as a promising 21st-century innovation to reduce registration errors, which can lead to problems at the polls and often serve as a barrier to participation. By making voter registration an integral part of government services, AVR offers states an opportunity to create a modern, secure, efficient and accurate voter information system that promotes rather than frustrates voter participation. That system is built on the crucial assertion that all eligible citizens1 should be registered to vote by default unless they decline. As of April 2019, 17 states and the District of Columbia had adopted or pledged to adopt AVR (or some enhanced version of the National Voter Registration Act).

Despite the system’s growing appeal, efforts to capture early reflections and lessons from AVR implementation have been sparse. Uncertainty about the technicalities of AVR continues to impede states that have passed legislation but still need to implement it. This report seeks to fill that gap. We outline practical considerations and recommendations on the execution of AVR, based on interviews with election administrators, advocates and experts from five states: Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Equipped with a better picture of AVR’s key components, election administrators, advocates and policymakers should be better positioned to deliver on the system’s promise.

We begin by defining AVR and outlining the different policy models that states have adopted. Second, we offer a brief update on the status of AVR implementation in five states. Third, we examine current voter registration practices across the country and the interplay among AVR, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and online voter registration. We then present considerations and recommendations on AVR implementation. Finally, we examine how states might feasibly expand AVR beyond the driver’s license agencies (DMVs)2 and into every government agency that deals with the general public. This expansion is an important step because not all eligible voters interact with the DMV, particularly people with low income and people of color.

The following takeaways provide a high-level summary of our recommendations on AVR:
Interagency Collaboration: AVR hinges on strong interagency collaboration. Election authorities must actively seek buy-in from collaborating agencies and take measures to understand their partners’ competing priorities, clientele and operating systems, meeting agencies where they are.

Data Management: AVR’s greatest improvements to data quality and efficiency come from a paperless process, and this may be the most difficult transition for some state agencies to make. Agencies vary dramatically in their abilities to collect, transmit and authenticate large quantities of voter registration data digitally. Election administrators must remain conscious of the intricacies of data management and actively engage technical and operational staff in the planning process. Administrators must also consider how shifts in data management affect front-line staff working in AVR source agencies and local election offices.

Eligibility: Maintaining accurate voter files and preventing accidental registration of noncitizens and other ineligible voters remain key concerns. To address these issues, implementers must proactively engage a wide variety of community advocates and stakeholders, carefully engineer interactions with the public and design forms to minimize confusion and build in quality control checks — plus legal protections — in the event that errors are made.

Voter Engagement: The registration process should be designed with voters in mind. The way questions are posed — and, ideally, how online screens are designed — could make or break the project. Everything related to AVR must have clarity as its number-one aim. Administrators responsible for AVR implementation should optimize their interactions with the public, including the usability of forms employed by state agencies. This should be done with support from designers experienced in developing highly usable forms and web pages, and in engaging diverse populations. Through public education, advocates and implementers should also prepare citizens to navigate the new registration process successfully.
Maintaining Momentum: Implementers should adopt systems that support continuous learning, enforcement and improvement of AVR. Regularly required data reporting, training and interagency meetings can help sustain AVR’s momentum.