What Is Automatic Voter Registration?

Before they can vote in an election, all eligible citizens must first register to vote. The process can be confusing for some. Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (also known as "the motor voter law") in 1993 to make the process easier.

The federal motor voter law requires state agencies to allow eligible voters to "opt in" and register to vote with a political party when they complete the necessary paperwork. For example, when you go to your local department of motor vehicles to renew your driver's license, you can change your voter registration.

If you don't update your information, election officials will default to your prior voter registration. If you've never registered to vote, your status will remain ineligible. This means the poll workers will turn you away on election day.

Automatic Voter Registration

The automatic voter registration system (AVR) follows a more streamlined approach. With AVR, the state automatically registers people to vote when they interact with a government agency. Unlike the federal system, voters must opt out if they don't want the agency to update their information.

One of the reasons state legislatures use AVR is to increase registration rates and voter turnout. (This is also one of the reasons they offer absentee ballots.)

How Does Automatic Voter Registration Work?

Oregon was the first state to create an automatic registration system in 2016. The state automatically registers eligible citizens to vote in Oregon when they interact with the DMV. The DMV office sends a notification to voters informing them of their registration. Voters can opt out by returning the notification.

There are four ways the states register voters.

1. Agency Provides Postcard

The DMV gives eligible voters a postcard at the agency. The card states that the agency will use information the citizen provides to update their voter registration information. They can also use this information to register the person to vote. Eligible voters can sign and return the card if they want to opt out.

2. Agency Sends Postcard Via Mail

Sometimes, the state agency sends voters a postcard in the mail informing them that the agency will automatically register them to vote unless they opt out. They can do this by signing and returning the card before a specific date. Alaska is one of the states that use this method.

3. Opt-in Registration at the Agency

Under this system, voters provide the necessary voter registration information directly to the agency at the DMV. They can do this through an electronic screen that asks citizens if they would like to register to vote.

4. Opt-out Registration at the Agency

You can opt out electronically at the DMV in states like California and Rhode Island.

Know Your State's Law on Automatic Voter Registration

The states vary in their approaches to automatic voter registration. Twenty states and the District of Colombia use automatic registration systems. The law on this registration system is constantly evolving. So, you must research your state's laws to understand how to register to vote.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the following states use AVR:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Washington D.C.
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island

In 2017, there was a big move toward using AVR. Some states, such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts, expanded AVR to include more than just the Department of Motor Vehicles. Now, citizens can register to vote (or opt out) at disability offices and assistance agencies.

Speak With an Attorney If Someone Has Violated Your Voting Rights

As an American citizen, you have the fundamental right to vote. Contact an election law attorney if you believe someone violated your voting rights or have questions about registering to vote.

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