On Elections

How people elect parliaments

US states edge forward on automatic voter registration

A 10th US state has now legislated to automate the process of voter registration, bringing coverage up to 25% of the US population.

In the United States automatic voter registration – first adopted in the state of Oregon just two years ago – means that the registration details of all citizens who interact with government agencies are copied to official voter registers, unless voters specifically opt out during a transaction.

The large state of Illinois has now joined Oregon, California and seven other states in the growing national movement.

Under these regimes relevant government agencies are required to record key voter identity and residence data and transfer the information to election officials, allowing them to update the electoral registers.

As the reform has expanded rapidly across multiple states, millions of US electors have been brought onto the voting registers.

AVR 2017 Map

Ten US states and the DC capital district have now adopted automatic voter registration (graphic: Brennan Centre for Justice, NY University)

Proposals for similar legislation have been introduced in around 23 further US states in the past year.

While the movement is mainly being promoted by Democratic party legislators, in Illinois and some other states the reform process has been bipartisan.

Republican legislators and party strategists are generally much less supportive of automatic registration, because most analysts calculate that the demographic groups of voters likely to gain registration – including low-income, minority and younger voters – are relatively more likely to vote for Democrat candidates.

The US voter registration system has been primarily voluntary throughout the country’s history. However the nation also has a historical track-record of keeping voters off the electoral registers for racist or partisan reasons.

From the post-Civil War reconstruction era in the late 19th century until the judicial and legal reforms in the 1960s, African-Americans were systematically kept off the rolls in many southern states.

Even today in many states tactical legislative regimes and official practices are still used to influence election outcomes by selectively hindering voter registration (as well as actual voting).

Most well-established democracies have independent official systems to create and maintain comprehensive voter registers, but the US has a tradition of voluntary – and thus non-comprehensive – state-by-state and local registers.

Australia has had compulsory enrolment (registration) of all voters since the early 20th century. Earlier this decade Australian also adopted electronic systems to assist the state and national electoral authorities to capture elector identity and residence data from government agency and utility accounts.

Britain has also moved towards a system of comprehensive individual voter registration in recent years, and has actually conducted house-to-house voter registration canvasses.

As a result, record levels of comprehensive voter enrolment have recently been reported in both Britain and Australia.

In the United States voter registration data is not easily assembled from over 50 state sources that use differing laws and systems. In the 2016 presidential election around 60% of estimated eligible voters actually voted, but numbers for what proportions of the remainder were registered but did not vote, or were not even registered, are difficult to capture.

The most comprehensive public survey of voter data is the US Elections Project, maintained by Dr Michael McDonald at the University of Florida.

The improvements to voter data systems in around a quarter of the US states should mean that next US elections held in 2018 will use the largest and most comprehensive voter registers ever.

The effect across the US will be varied, however. Some other more conservative-governed US states – such as Indiana – may actually see voter registrations decline as tighter partisan laws are enacted.

AVR 2017 Bills Considered

Bills for new or expanded automatic voter registration laws have been presented to the legislatures of over 30 US states, including 23 additional to those which have already adopted the approach (graphic: Brennan Centre for Justice, NY University)



New York Times Editorial:  On Voting Reforms, Follow Illinois, Not Texas (31 August)

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This entry was posted on September 1, 2017 by in Current issues, Enrolment/registration, Franchise and turnout, United States, US states.
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