Executive Summary

Casting a ballot that will be counted is how Americans, regardless of privilege or status, have the power to engage in self-government and hold elected representatives accountable for their actions or inactions. Participating in elections is a fundamental right of citizenship, a necessary element of what it means to be a free, self-governing people. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said:

The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions and it is democracy turned upside down. So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.1 

Elections are a public good and serve critical purposes: they are how we choose our representatives, set the course for our public policy and give voice to our views about the issues that impact our lives, families, and communities. But elections cannot serve these purposes well if we do not all participate, and we have a voter participation problem in this country. In 2012, 66 million voters chose President Obama, 61 million voted for Governor Romney, and 82 million eligible people did not vote at all.2  Further, the low overall voting rate is compounded by significant voter turnout gaps among different demographic groups. In particular, we see significantly less participation by lower-income people, people of color, and young people compared to higher rates of participation by older and more affluent white voters. 

Low voter turnout and the turnout gaps between different demographic groups are driven by a number of factors, but the critical first step toward full and inclusive voting is ensuring much higher rates of voter registration and, ultimately, a voting system where every eligible citizen is registered to vote. Of course, many other factors of engagement and mobilization must also come into play, but registration is the necessary step for enabling all of our missing potential voters to exercise their right to vote and have their voices heard in our elections. Registration is thus the critical structural problem that we need to fix if our goal is to achieve an election system that is fully participatory on the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Without this step, tens of millions of potential voters will continue to be excluded from the electoral arena, and they will remain essentially invisible in our democracy. Once these millions of potential “missing voters” are registered, they matter politically, their voices can be heard, and, potentially, much more robust and inclusive voter turnout could result. As the current numbers suggest, the potential for increasing participation by increasing registration is huge: 

  • The rate of voter turnout among all eligible citizens was only 64 percent in 2008, and 62 percent in 2012;3  but 
  • The rate of voter turnout of people registered to vote was 90 percent in 2008, and 87 percent in 2012.4 

When someone is registered to vote, the data shows, s/he is much more likely to actually vote. Moreover, the differences in turnout between demographic groups shrink dramatically among registered voters; as we demonstrate below, being registered correlates with greater rates of participation among people of color, young people, and people earning low incomes. Solving these problems of low turnout and unequal turnout, it is clear, has to start with the problem of low voter registration rates. 

Our current voter registration system, which is designed as a voter-initiated or “self-registration” system, creates barriers to registration that do not serve any significant purpose in a democracy. Demos believes that full participation in elections significantly depends on achieving universal voter registration through an automatic registration system. Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) builds on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA)5  and other voter registration reforms to improve the overall effectiveness of the voter registration system. Automatic Voter Registration uses 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, in a paperless process. With comprehensive and inclusive AVR, states have the opportunity to take a major leap forward in voting rights by building the modern, equitable registration system that we need and deserve. 

In the following report, we make a detailed case for AVR as a critical step forward for democratic participation in the United States. First, we take an objective look at the tens of millions of “missing voters”—the eligible citizens who are left outside of the political process by our current registration procedures. Second, we explain how AVR can increase political participation by lowering procedural barriers, reducing administrative errors, and increasing the reach of voter education and mobilization efforts. We project an immediate impact of approximately 27 million eligible persons added to voter rolls across the country if every state adopted automatic voter registration.6  Third, to help achieve this goal, we lay out the optimal AVR policy design with a step-by-step explanation of the automatic registration process and provide guidance about important considerations that need to be addressed. These include: ensuring that ineligible people are not registered to vote and are protected from legal consequences of inadvertent registration; providing an option to decline registration; building in privacy protections and data protections; and ensuring continued compliance with the National Voter Registration Act. 

Finally, we look at how AVR can be aligned and coordinated with other voter registration policies, such as online registration, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and Same-Day (or Election Day) Registration. We explain how each of these other 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. We conclude with a 50-state matrix indicating where these “building blocks” for AVR already exist, which can help advocates map the future of AVR on a state-by-state basis.

Download the full report to read more