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Automatic voter registration: bringing America’s voting system into the 21st century

classic vintage clock
classic vintage clock

Flyers on dining hall tables, posters plastered on lamp posts and in hallways, daily emails in your University inbox, all with the same message: register to vote before it’s too late. 

New Jersey’s voter registration deadline for the upcoming midterm was Tuesday, but for future elections, many residents will already be registered well before the deadline because of a new automatic voter registration (AVR) law. 


When Governor Phil Murphy signed the act into law in April 2017, New Jersey became the 12th state along with the District of Columbia to authorize the new system, through which eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote when they interact with a government agency. The bill will go into effect in November 2018 after the midterm elections. 

To eliminate an unnecessarily expensive and inefficient voter registration system that prevents many Americans from exercising their right to vote, the federal government should make AVR a nationwide requirement for states.  

Like most states that have implemented this system, New Jersey will require that residents be registered to vote when they apply for an identification card, like a driver’s license, through the state’s motor vehicle agency, unless they decline. Their information, like name, address, and date of birth, is shared electronically with the agency, which then verifies the individual’s voter eligibility and enrolls the individual. Essentially, AVR makes voter registration an opt-out instead of an opt-in process.

A well-functioning democracy hinges on citizen participation in elections. One of the essential roles of government is to make voting as accessible as possible. Research shows that AVR, which rightly shifts the burden of registering to vote from the individual to the state, provides the most opportunity for eligible Americans to vote. It is the responsibility of the federal government to institute this policy nationwide.

Research shows that AVR will greatly increase the number of Americans registered to vote. The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that if every state implemented AVR, 22 million more people would be eligible to vote, 9.5 million of whom would have been unlikely to register without the program. 

Of course, simply increasing the number of those enrolled does not directly lead to increased voter participation. But the CAP report states that about 87 percent of registered voters reported voting in both 2012 and 2016. If 87 percent of those 22 million potential voters voted, 19 million more people would participate in elections.


College students, in particular, stand to benefit from AVR. Because college students have often never voted before, many are not aware of how the registration process works, and miss the deadline to register. With AVR, however, that issue becomes irrelevant. 

In fact, an analysis of the AVR program in Oregon revealed that it disproportionately registered young people. Though 18–29 year-olds only make up 20 percent of the Oregon electorate, 40 percent of AVR registrants in 2016 were in that age bracket.  

In addition to significantly increasing the amount of registered voters, AVR would also create a more efficient, cost-effective election process. AVR introduces an electronic system, which saves both time and money by reducing the amount of paper forms that must be completed and mailed. 

Additionally, the electronic system allows for new information to be automatically added to someone’s registration form. When someone living in a state without AVR moves, they have to submit another voter registration form with the updated address to remain an eligible voter. Many people are unaware that they need to re-register, however, and thus are unknowingly removed from the voter rolls. 

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AVR eliminates this problem, as the registration updates automatically when someone provides their new address information through a government agency, such as the motor vehicle agency. 

Opponents of AVR argue that the system could increase the potential for voter fraud, as non-citizens can still obtain forms of ID through the motor vehicles agency. When registering individuals to vote, however, agencies cross-check potential voters with other databases to ensure that they are citizens. 

In fact, a 2015 Brennan Center report shows how the system can increase the integrity of elections, as the electronic system allows for constant updates by government agencies, eliminating outdated or duplicated records, which can be manipulated. The electronic system also eliminates the possibility for human error in data entry. 

Opponents also argue that implementing AVR increases support for the party already in control of the state. Specifically, Republicans fear that in many of the blue states, AVR benefits Democrats. The purpose of the program, however, is to ensure that the maximum amount of eligible voters are actually able to vote. The question of who stands to benefit from the program is beside the point. 

AVR will also combat the effects of voter suppression, an issue that has sparked controversy in the Georgia gubernatorial race, just one of many examples of voter suppression across the country. 

The Associated Press recently reported that Republican nominee and current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who controls elections and voter registration in the state, has stalled 53,000 voter registration applications before the upcoming elections. Of those applicants whose registration has stalled, nearly 70 percent are black, even though blacks make up only about 32 percent of Georgia’s population. 

Kemp claims these registrations are being held because they don’t pass his “exact match” policy, in which all the information on the voter form must match government data, up to the hyphen in a name. 

If Georgia adopted AVR, however, this exact match policy would be unnecessary, and those 53,000 people, plus the over 1.4 million whose voter registrations Kemp has canceled since 2012, would be able to vote. 

AVR should be a requirement in every state, as it both allows a significantly more amount of people to vote and makes the process more efficient. 

Shannon Chaffers is a first-year at from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She can be reached at