In the 2016 election, only 55.7 percent of the United States' voting age population showed up to vote, according to the Census Bureau. With this percentage, the United States trails beyond most developed democracies for voter turnout.
Comparatively, 86 percent of those who were already registered cast a ballot last year. But even before acquiring last year’s data, political scientists and voting rights advocates have known how big an effect the first step of getting registered can be on overall turnout.
As the Pew Research Center found, voter registration has often been practiced as an individual responsibility, as each person must register themselves manually. But that needs to change.
The best and most practical answer is to pass automatic voter registration legislation.
Automatic voter registration was only put into practice in the U.S. two years ago. In many states, the way to get more voters registered is to go through their driver’s licenses and state IDs.
In Oregon, the Oregon Motor Voters Act modernized voter registration by ensuring that every eligible citizen interacting with Oregon’s Office of Motor Vehicles had an updated registration status and was eligible to vote.
And it turned out rather well. According to the Center for American Progress, AVR laws in Oregon had numerous positive benefits on both voter turnout and general civic engagement.
More than 272,000 new voters registered, with over a third of those being new voters for the 2016 presidential election. Of this mass number, more than 116,000 people registered who were statistically unlikely to do so had the legislation not been enacted. Additionally, more than 40,000 people who had been previously politically disengaged voted in the most recent election.
Equally important is how this way of registering voters caters to the younger population, as well as other demographic groups historically underrepresented in voting.
According to the Center for American Progress, Oregon’s guinea-pig legislation created an electorate that’s now more representative of its younger, more rural, lower-income and more racially diverse populations.
In early 2016, former President Barack Obama advocated for automatic voter registration to be adopted at the national level as a way to reduce barriers to voting.
“Let’s make the Land of Lincoln a leader in voter participation,” Obama said, according to MSNBC. “That’s something we should be proud to do. Let’s set the pace – encourage other states across the country to follow our lead, making automatic voter registration the new norm across America.”
For many Americans, getting registered is just one more obstacle to turning out at the polls. While registering only takes a few minutes, many eligible Americans may not know where to go to get registered or may not have internet access to do so at any time.
According to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, only 10 states and the District of Columbia have AVR policies. Oregon was the first state to enact automatic voter registration in 2015. Soon after, California followed.
West Virginia and Vermont saw strong support by both Republican and Democratic state representatives and passed AVR rules legislatively. Alternatively, Connecticut and Georgia adopted modernized registration procedures through executive administration. Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. have also passed automatic voting registration laws. In 2017, an additional 32 states introduced AVR proposals.
Illinois is the latest to modernize its procedures. After Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a similar bill last year because of concerns in common with Illinois Democrats, the state finally enacted AVR laws in August.
The law would add Illinoisans to voting rolls when they get or renew their driver’s license, the Chicago Tribune reports. However, the state legislature and governor hope to expand the plan in a more innovative direction that doesn’t rely on driving identification.
Indiana has already proposed automatic voter registration bills, HB1178, with a majority of representative support being Republican. The bill would follow other states in relying that residents be asked by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles whether they would like to be registered.
However, this setup for automatic voter registration isn’t perfect. For one, not everyone may interact with their local BMV office because they don’t have a license or state ID.
Still, if hundreds of thousands of state residents can get registered through this route, the legislation is worth it.