Last week, congressional leaders introduced a bill that would revolutionize voter registration in the United States, the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016. Most other developed democracies use a form of universal, automatic voter registration. But nearly every jurisdiction in the United States places the burden of registering on individuals. While many states have made great strides modernizing voter registration, consistent automatic registration procedures throughout the country would dramatically improve multiple aspects of voter registration.
Under this bill, eligible Americans would be automatically registered to vote when they interact with a wide-variety of state and federal agencies, unless they opt-out. Of course, state voter qualification requirements would still apply, and everyone would have a chance to decline voter registration during the transaction. The bill would also improve other aspects of registration by expanding online voter registration and making it easier for registered voters to update information like their current address.
This simple change to agency procedures can make a big difference. Many Americans become more engaged and interested in voting close to an election. Plus, those who have never before cast a ballot may be unaware of registration rules and requirements. This may be especially true for young people, given the decline of civics education in our county. Importantly, research shows that—in comparison to opt-in systems—opt-out systems that require no additional action increase participation in a wide variety of areas, from retirement savings to organ donation. This bill’s default option favoring voter registration promises to make a significant difference in voter registration rates.
Moreover, by streamlining and broadening agency registration, and by expanding online registration, the need for paper-based voter registration would be further reduced. Paper-based registration processing costs far more and introduces the potential for voter file inaccuracies, due to input typos or misreading information on a handwritten application. As such, this bill would make our registration procedures more efficient while also improving the accuracy of voter rolls.
The recent momentum to enact various automatic voter registration proposals in the states is incredible. However, a national automatic voter registration system makes the most sense, and would ensure that all Americans benefit from a modernized registration system fit for the twenty-first century.