Voter turnout in midterm elections is typically low, hovering around 40% (compared to 60% in presidential election years) since 2002—but that’s likely to change in 2018.
Why? Strong opinions about today’s political environment could certainly be a factor. But another reason has been far less discussed: There should be a lot more registered voters.
Since 2015, 13 states and Washington, D.C., have begun the process of making it easier for eligible citizens to register to vote and accurately update their voter registration. The impact of those efforts will come to fruition in 2018.
Known as automatic voter registration, or AVR, the process is a simple but surefire way to address concerns about the integrity of our elections while energizing our democracy at a time of deep disillusionment and fears of disenfranchisement.
We served as secretaries of state in West Virginia and Vermont when our states became the third and fourth, respectively, in the nation to pass AVR bills. In West Virginia, the law passed with a bipartisan majority, and in Vermont, it became law by a near-unanimous vote.
Here’s how AVR works. When an eligible citizen visits a government office like a department of motor vehicles, the information they provide is used to automatically register them to vote—unless they decline. There’s no separate paperwork to be completed: nothing to mail and no forms that smudge and lead to misspelled names on voter rolls.
And when a voter tells any participating government office about a change in address or name, their voter information is updated by election officials automatically (participating offices vary by state). The change in the process saves states money by cutting down on processing costs and manual labor.
Registering to vote or updating registration information usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you move. One in nine Americans moves every year, but registration usually isn’t portable—in most cases, you have to fill out a form and update your registration every time you move, even within the same state. With a quarter of voters falsely believing their registration is automatically updated when they move, it’s no wonder one in eight registrations is out of date or inaccurate.
The consequences are obvious: Lower registration means fewer people participate in elections. Inaccuracies cause delays and problems at the polls.
And perhaps most perniciously, outdated rolls help fuel laws that threaten the right to vote. Recently in Georgia, for instance, 53,000 registrations were put on hold because voter information didn’t exactly match details in existing records in the state. These policies are described as an effort to clean up voter lists, but some can be overly aggressive in kicking people off the rolls.
AVR, on the other hand, makes our democracy work better. In Oregon, the first state to put AVR in place, nearly 100,000 automatically registered voters cast ballots in the 2016 election. One Center for American Progress study estimates that nearly half of them might not have registered to vote without the reform. At a moment when so many in our society feel left behind, the voter participation rates shot up in rural and low-income areas more than anywhere else.
During Vermont’s first full year of AVR in 2017, the state received approximately 21,000 new or updated registrations from the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) alone—a whopping 34% increase in total voter registrations over the previous year, according to internal Vermont government data. In Rhode Island, which implemented AVR in June, voter registration was 92% higher at its Division of Motor Vehicles in the first two weeks of implementation compared to the same two-week period last year, according to internal Rhode Island government data.
All told, at least 20 states introduced proposals for AVR during state legislative sessions this year. Our hope is that the national consensus around AVR will only grow.
To be sure, there are questions swirling right now about the security and integrity of our elections. Members of Congress are sending much-needed money to states like ours to replace outmoded voting machines and computers (some that date back to the Windows 2000 era). And digitizing more of the process might make some Americans wary.
But we have to make a choice: We can either let states implement laws that threaten free and fair elections, or we can make simple, smart fixes like AVR.
If small but mighty states like Vermont and West Virginia can pull this off, the rest of the country can too. And doing so could significantly influence who we choose to represent us in 2019.
Jim Condos is the secretary of state of Vermont and the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Natalie Tennant is the manager of state advocacy in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, and the former secretary of state of West Virginia.