At its first in-person meeting last week, members of the White House voting commission seemed to scoff at a key reform for expanding access to the ballot: automatic voter registration (AVR).
After Commissioner Mark Rhodes said he’d implemented a version of the system in his role as a West Virginia county elections clerk, he was pointedly asked by Commissioner Christy McCormick whether it had led to increased turnout.
“No,” Wood replied sheepishly, eliciting chuckles from the panelists.
In the end, the commission agreed to study AVR’s “pros and cons,” as Vice Chair Kris Kobach put it, though it devoted much more time to discussing new ways to root out ineligible voters.
AVR may or may not have had an impact in Wood County, West Virginia (population 86,000). But now there’s compelling new evidence from a much bigger sample that, as you’d expect, making it easier for people to register leads more people to vote.
Since early 2015, nine states have implemented AVR —in which eligible voters are added to the rolls when they come in contact with the DMV or other state agencies, unless they opt out— with Rhode Island the latest to do so last week. It’s emerged as the most promising and popular idea for expanding voting access.
In response, those looking to fight off reform have developed a talking point: Automatic voter registration — often falsely labeled “mandatory voter registration” by opponents — might sound nice, but it doesn’t actually increase voting. Since people aren’t affirmatively choosing to register but instead are simply being added to the rolls by default, the line goes, they’re not likely to show up at the polls.
Until recently, it’s been hard to refute that claim, because AVR hadn’t been in effect long enough to provide much evidence. But an important new study released Wednesday by Demos looked at Oregon, the first state to pass AVR in 2015, and the only state where it was in effect for the 2016 election.
Here’s the key finding, from a writeup by the study’s authors in The Nation:
Turnout in Oregon increased more between 2012 and 2016 than in any other state. Overall voter turnout in the state reached 68 percent in the 2016 presidential election, up from 64 percent during the 2012 non-AVR election period. Nationally, voter turnout increased by only 1.6 points.
Get that? The state that saw the biggest turnout jump from 2012 to 2016 was the one state where AVR was in effect.
Oregon’s first-place ranking is even more remarkable when you consider that it wasn’t a presidential swing state and it didn’t host a competitive Senate race, so outside factors weren’t driving Oregonians to the polls. And it was already one of the highest turnout states, meaning it didn’t have as much room to improve as most others. For years, Oregon has voted almost exclusively by mail.
Overall, 186,050 Oregonians were registered for the first time through AVR, and 67,903 of them voted. True, that 36 percent ratio suggests people registering through AVR may be somewhat less likely than other new registrants to vote. But those new AVR registrants still made up nearly 3.8 percent of all Oregon voters—an enormous share to be attributable to one election reform.
The report also found that the voters who registered via AVR were more likely to be non-white, young, and low-income than were the voters who hadn’t registered through AVR. So the new system appears not only to have boosted turnout, but also to have helped make the electorate more representative of the state as a whole.
Just one thing: Don’t tell the White House voting commission.