The primary season is kicking into high gear this month, which means that many Americans are probably just starting to think about voting. Since voting is a two-step process in the United States, requiring citizens to register before they get access to a ballot, that also means that many people may have remembered too late that their primary is coming up. Some registration deadlines have already passed, leaving would-be voters with no option but to wait for the general election to weigh in on selecting a president.
Isn’t there an easier way? Plenty of states are trying to figure that out — and a few are even testing out a system that automates the whole annoying process. Countries like France and Sweden already automatically register eligible citizens, and have high voter turnout rates at about 80 percent and 82.6 percent, respectively. For comparison, the U.S. had a 53.6 percent turnout rate in the 2012 election.
Our current process could be worse: Back in the day, every voter used to have to fill out paper registration forms and mail them in. Processing all that paperwork took a long time, which meant that voters would have to get ready for elections months and months in advance.
Registering isn’t something you get to do once and be done with, either. If a voter changes their legal name, they have to re-register. If they want to change political parties, they have to re-register. Every time a voter moves to a new address, they need to re-register (a reality that can affect twentysomething voters in particular, because we tend to move around a lot). That’s a lot of paperwork — and it’s expensive for states, too. This bureaucratic tangle, unsurprisingly, also leaves the voter rolls full of mistakes; it turns out systems that rely on deciphering bad handwriting or spelling people’s names with greater accuracy than Starbucks cups are doomed to be error-prone.
The Constitution grants states the power to feng shui their elections however they like, though, and each state modernizes at its own pace. In 1993, Congress made things a little bit simpler by passing the National Voter Registration Act (also known as the "motor voter" act), which let anyone going to the DMV for a new driver’s license register to vote at the same time. Since then, the Internet has made things even easier. In 2008, only two states let you register to vote online. Now, at least 33 give you the option. “You can register at 3 a.m. in your pajamas, without ever leaving the house,” said David Becker, who researches election administration at Pew Charitable Trusts. “That’s a great development.”
Still, these developments leave the burden of registering on the voter, which probably is somewhat to blame for our turnout numbers looking pitiful when compared to democracies that automatically register those eligible. According to the Census Bureau, about 62 percent of eligible voters were registered in 2012. So why aren’t voters just automatically registered here?
Both Democratic presidential candidates — and the president — have said that they think automatic registration is a good idea, and quite a few states are considering trying it. Oregon and California, however, are the only states that have turned the idea into law so far. In 2017, California, which has about 7 million unregistered eligible voters and ranks 38th in the U.S. when it comes to voter registration, will be able to automatically register any voters who go to the DMV to deal with their driver’s license. Myrna Perez at the Brennan Center for Justice suggests fanning the process out even further, proposing that in an ideal world, states that implement this policy would think about tying automatic registration to other government agencies — ones that provide social services or help veterans.
Oregon has already started registering voters automatically, and it shows. Molly Woon, communications director for the Oregon secretary of state’s office, says that the state used to average 2,000 new registrations a month. Between the beginning of this year, when the new system was implemented, and February 17, the state registered 9,000 voters.
Opponents of automatic voter registration cite privacy as a concern — voter rolls are public, and some people aren’t fond of the idea of their address automatically being entered into a system. Oregon’s plan isn’t perfect, either; if you never go to the DMV, you’ll still have to register yourself. Many out-of-state students eligible to vote in Oregon probably fall into that category, and the Oregon Student Association will be holding drives this year to make sure those left out still end up on the voter rolls.
Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, and a few other states are currently debating automatic voting registration. Dozens of House Democrats are also co-sponsoring an automatic voter registration bill — albeit one that won’t be going anywhere soon, given the current ideological inflexibility of Congress. As with most policies concerning voting rights, support for automatic voter registration is pretty partisan. Republicans who oppose automatic voter registration say that it would increase voter fraud by putting ineligible voters on the ballot — and that requiring Americans to take the initiative makes them better appreciate voting. “You’re going to end up with aliens on the voter rolls,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, currently facing lawsuits because of his state’s new voter registration requirements, told the New York Times last November. “It’s inevitable that an automatic registration system would result in many of them getting on.”
Conservatives, it’s worth noting, are more likely to already be registered than liberals. Automatic voter registration is mostly being considered in states with Democratic majorities. Perez says that election officials already have to worry about making sure ineligible voters stay off the rolls, so dealing with these automatic systems would be nothing new. She adds that automatic voter registration might actually cut down on errors, as people tend to be careful about making sure their name and address are spelled correctly on driver’s licenses.
Plenty of other states are trying out a different option: same-day registration, which compresses the typical two-step process of voting. Eligible citizens show up to their polling place, register, and fill out a ballot. Fifteen states currently offer this option, and, according to a study done by progressive think tank Demos, states with single-day registration had much higher turnout than those without it. Many experts think that this change could have a particularly noticeable effect on twentysomething turnout; the easier you make it for frequently relocating young people to change their voter registration, the more likely it is that they’re going to vote.
The big question that has yet to be answered with automatic voter registration is whether it will actually increase turnout. “We expect more people to vote,” Woon says. Oregon is one of a handful of states that conduct their elections completely by mail, so that confidence is probably well placed. If you’re on the rolls, you’ll get mailed a ballot. At that point, voting is about as painless as it gets.
California is a different case — voters will still need to turn up at the polls after they’ve been registered. Since the state’s system won’t be ready to start until next year, that means we won’t get a sneak peek at how it could affect turnout in a presidential race until 2020. The first round of data out of these electoral experiments might be misleading. If the pool of registered voters grows and turnout doesn’t grow to match, without looking at the raw numbers it might look like voter participation is dropping.
Regardless, these steps at least give thousands more people the option of voting. Plenty of other states will be watching to see what happens, wondering if they, too, can finally say good riddance to annoying snail-mail voter registration paperwork — and make it so voters never have to worry about forgetting to register again.
Want to vote — but not sure if your registration deadline has passed?
Rock the Vote has a list of all registration deadlines — and a list of states where you can do same-day registration.
Not sure if you’re registered?
Headcount has a state-by-state list of ways to check whether your registration is up to date.
Want to know if you need to bring an ID to the polls — or if you have the option of voting early?
The Brennan Center for Justice has a thorough state-by-state guide of all the different voting rules to remember if you’re a student.