By making voter registration an “out-opt” as opposed to the traditional “opt-in” method, the usual barriers to registration are often alleviated or removed entirely. When eligible state residents interact with government agencies (whether that be via the Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) Health, Labor, or all of the above), these residents are automatically registered or have their registrations updated via the process of AVR.
This explainer was last updated on February 16, 2023.
Automatic voter registration, or AVR, was developed as an easier way for Americans to register to vote. By making voter registration an “out-opt” as opposed to the traditional “opt-in” method, the usual barriers to registration are often alleviated or removed entirely. When eligible state residents interact with government agencies (whether that be via the Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) Health, Labor, or all of the above), these residents are automatically registered or have their registrations updated via the process of AVR.
Since its inception in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, AVR has been adopted in 22 states and DC. Proponents have praised AVR systems nationwide for how those systems have modernized the registration process and expanded voting access to those who might not have otherwise been registered. The map below shows which states currently have AVR policies in place or plan to implement them in 2023. The data from this map is sourced from information provided by the NSCL.
History of AVR
In 1993, Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act, which is often called the “Motor Voter Act” because it provided individuals the chance to register to vote while getting their driver’s license or otherwise interacting with the DMV. The Act was the first piece of legislation that institutionalized the idea of registering to vote while getting a driver’s license, an experience we find commonplace today. The National Voter Registration Act later helped to facilitate a digital association between DMV and election and voter registration databases, streamlining the process.
Oregon was the first state to implement AVR in 2016. Under the “Oregon model,” individuals were not asked if they would like to be registered, but instead were automatically enrolled. According to the Oregon governor Katie Brown in 2019, automatic voter registration in the state was a “phenomenal success”. Brown claims that AVR increased the number of people of color in Oregon who are registered to vote. California soon implemented their own AVR legislation; by 2023, nearly half of the 50 states have followed suit by passing AVR laws.
Different Types of AVR
AVR can be implemented in two distinct methods: back-end AVR and front-end AVR. Back-end AVR is when the state establishes whether a person is eligible to vote through a state agency and then gives them the choice to opt out later on; this is the model Oregon used. In many instances, back-end AVR opt-out happens through a post-transaction contact, typically by mail. In this case, if the potential eligible voter takes no action when they receive the mailer after their visit to the DMV, then the state carries through with their registration.
Alternatively, front-end AVR is when the state registers people at the government agencies and allows them to opt out when they are interacting with the state agency. For example, if a voter is at the DMV to obtain a driver’s license, a front-end AVR system will prompt them to register as part of the registration process. The graphic below shows the states that have adopted AVR policies, and indicates which utilize front-end and which back-end AVR.
For a more granular look at AVR across the US, the National Conference of State Legislatures has a comprehensive overview of which states currently have AVR implemented, what year the policy was implemented, and through which government agencies it can be accessed. The information from the NCSL shows that the majority of states use the front-end AVR method. Additionally, the table provides insight that a variety of state agencies exercise AVR nationwide– not only the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Proposed Benefits & Drawbacks of AVR
There are a handful of benefits that are frequently cited in arguments in favor of implementing AVR. First, AVR is a more effective and efficient means of maintaining a state’s registration rolls, as it helps to keep those rolls up-to-date with voter information; new voters are added in with current information, and the automatic system helps keep information for previously registered voters up-to-date. By opting for AVR, states may even save money by spending less on staff time, paper processing, mailing and other expenses related to registration and maintaining accurate voter rolls.
Many proponents of AVR also claim that the policy increases registration and that it boosts voter turnout because it removes some of the barriers or pain points of registering. Registration—and problems with registration—can be one of the highest barriers to voting: in 2008, a Caltech/MIT report demonstrated that three million Americans tried to vote but could not because of issues with their voter registration. AVR activists also highlight how the policy diminishes the disparities in turnout by race, ethnicity, age and other demographic categories by making registration more accessible for all, most notably minority groups.
On the other hand, AVR opponents point policymakers and local officials to the policy’s drawbacks. One often-cited pitfall is the possibility of accidentally registering non-eligible people in states with more aggressive back-end AVR policies. Additionally, the evidence AVR’s effect on turnout is often confusing and inconclusive. A study by Silvia Kim also found that a variant of AVR, called ARR (automatic re registration) which targets existing registrants, found that AVR in these cases increased turnout by 5.8 percentage points. Mcghee, Hill and Romero find that AVR has a substantial effect on registration but these new registrants are less likely to vote. However, enough new registrants often vote that the eligible turnout rate increases as a result. Ultimately, it is difficult to ascertain political outcomes as a direct result of AVR implementation.
Previous Research on AVR
What, though, does the existing research tell us about AVR writ large? There are a number of studies to draw on for a fuller picture of what we understand about AVR and its effects. In one study on automatic voter registration, researchers utilized a differences in differences approach to show that AVR had moderate effects on registration, with stronger evidence that these effects are larger for Hispanic voters. According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, AVR markedly increased the number of voters being registered, though the increases varied widely, ranging from 9 to 94 percent across states. These increases were found in states with large and small populations, and across party lines as well. Using these and other data, a report from the Center for American Progress that projected the impact of AVR if it was expanded to all 50 states claimed that if every state adopted the same system as Oregon, more than 22 million new voters across the country would be registered in the first year alone.
Most recently, a paper written by Eric McGhee at the Public Policy Institute of California demonstrates that the effects of AVR build gradually the longer the program is in place. Additionally, the paper argues that different AVR systems have varying effects on turnout. For example, back-end AVR is more likely to increase the overall volume of registrations, whereas front-end AVR might lead to fewer overall registrations, but results in higher-propensity voters registering, which in turn has a greater impact on turnout.
Overall, the most significant distinction when making claims about the success of AVR is the difference between increased registrations as a result of AVR versus increased turnout. While many studies find an increase in the number of registrations after AVR is implemented nationwide, as established above, it is not a given that those increases will translate to higher turnout. It is possible that while AVR is successful in registering voters who may not have otherwise registered, those new registrants are unlikely to turnout to vote.
With automatic voter registration, statewide agencies that collect relevant information about potential eligible voters can facilitate the process of registration for voters and election officials, automatically registering many individuals who may otherwise not have registered. Advocates of AVR nationwide praise the way the policy bolsters turnout by removing a significant barrier for voters, especially for those belonging to racial and age minority groups. While some researchers claim the effects of AVR on turnout are substantial and should be celebrated, other studies find the results to be inconclusive and say that those being registered via the channels of AVR are not likely to turnout to vote.