New Demos Report Details How Automatic Voter Registration Could Register 27 Million of America’s Missing Voters

Release Date: 
January 19, 2016

Demos will hold a webinar with Ari Berman, contributing writer for The Nation, and Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle)

America faces a crisis of low political participation. The current voter registration system unnecessarily burden tens of millions of potential voters–particularly people of color, young people, and people with low incomes, such that one out of four potential voters - 51 million eligible citizens - are not registered to vote. A new Demos report finds that Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple solution that can transform voter registration from a barrier to a gateway to participation.

In Automatic Voter Registration: Finding America’s Missing Voters, Liz Kennedy, Demos Campaign Strategist and Counsel, Lew Daly, Demos Director of Policy and Research, and Brenda Wright, Demos Vice President of Policy and Legal Strategies, provide a roadmap for policymakers and show how automatic voter registration (AVR) can transform voter registration from a barrier to a gateway to engagement. They find that AVR could grant approximately 27 million people access to elections and help close registration gaps across age, income, and racial groups.

Our current system of voter registration creates barriers to voting that exclude tens of millions of potential voters from the political process,” said Kennedy. “AVR is a common-sense reform and an essential step to ensuring all eligible people can have their voices heard. AVR can help create the free, fair, and accessible democracy we deserve by shifting voter registration from a barrier to a gateway to engagement for America’s millions of missing voters.”

Building on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and other voter registration reforms like Same-Day Registration, AVR improves the overall effectiveness of the voter registration system. State election officials receive information already on file with a variety of government agencies to identify persons who are eligible to vote and add them to the voter rolls, or update their voter information, upon confirming their eligibility and offering an opportunity to decline registration.

Further, adding currently unregistered eligible voters to the rolls through AVR would put them on the radar for elections officials, candidates, parties, and voter mobilization groups, allowing them to be included in the outreach and education efforts shown to have a significant impact on voter turnout. Finally, shifting to an AVR system would free up resources that are currently being invested in voter registration efforts to be redirected toward voter education and mobilization.

Other key findings include:

  • 4.1 million Americans who tried to register to vote were prevented due to registration deadlines.  Another 1.9 million could not add themselves to the voter rolls because they did not know where or how to register.

  • Registration is key to turnout: overall, while the rate of voter turnout among all eligible citizens was 64 percent in 2008 and 62 percent in 2012, the rate of voter turnout for people registered to vote was 90 percent in 2008 and 87 percent in 2012.

  • There is a significant racial and class disparity in voter registration. Higher-income Americans vote at nearly double the rate of the lowest-income Americans. 41 percent of eligible Latino citizens, 44 percent of eligible Asian American citizens, 46 percent of eligible young adults (18-24 year olds), and 37 percent of eligible people with low incomes (under $30,000) aren’t registered to vote.

  • Voter turnout gaps are much smaller for registered members of low-turnout groups compared to the groups as a whole. Turnout inequalities shrink dramatically for Latinos and Asian-Americans when they are registered to vote, particularly in  presidential election years.  

“Young people, people of color, and people with low incomes vote at lower rates, and in many cases much lower rates, than older and more affluent white voters,” said Daly. "Automatic Voter Registration, if widely adopted, is major step forward for a more inclusive democracy that gives voice to the growing diversity of our country.”

The authors explain that a properly-designed AVR system will not only empower eligible citizens to vote—it will also significantly decrease the administrative errors that currently plague the registration process. The report lays out how Automatic Voter Registration works, and addresses important considerations that need to be addressed in designing an inclusive, protective system.

The authors conclude by looking at how AVR can be aligned with other voter registration policies, such as online registration, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, Same-Day (or Election Day) Registration, and voter registration through government agencies under the National Voter Registration Act. They explain how each of these advances in election administration can help prepare a state for Automatic Voter Registration and can work alongside automatic registration to achieve universal registration of all eligible American citizens. They provide a 50-state matrix indicating where these “building blocks”  already exist, to assist policymakers and advocates to map the future of AVR on a state-by-state basis.