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Automatic voter registration impact on state voter registration

Sean McElwee points us to this study by Kevin Morris and Peter Dunphy, who write:

Automatic voter registration or AVR . . . features two seemingly small but transformative changes to how people register to vote:

1. Citizens who interact with government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles are registered to vote, unless they decline. In other words, a person is registered unless they opt out, instead of being required to opt in.

2. The information citizens provide as part of their application for government services is electronically transmitted to elections officials, who verify their eligibility to vote. This process is seamless and secure.

In the past five years, 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted AVR. (Three states — Connecticut, Utah, and New Mexico — have adopted something very close to automatic registration.)

Morris and Dunphy perform some statistical analysis on state-level registration data and report:

– AVR markedly increases the number of voters being registered — increases in the number of registrants ranging from 9 to 94 percent.

– These registration increases are found in big and small states, as well as states with different partisan makeups.

I’m not sure what to think. On one hand, I’d expect this sort of treatment to work; on the other hand, some of the data look weird, such as Oregon in 2015, which suggests that other things are going on besides the treatment:

Lots more registrations in the control group than the non-control group in that year, even though it says that 2015 is before the treatment period. So it seems that there are systematic differences between treatment and control groups. Given there are such differences, and these differences show up differently in different years (compare 2013 to 2015), why should we be so sure that the differences in Georgia 2017, for example, are due to the treatment? To put it another way, they seem to be leaning very heavily on the comparisons to the matched tracts.

That said, there’s a lot about these data I don’t understand. Like, why do registrations increase steadily within each year? I’m sure there’s a reason, and maybe it’s in the report and I didn’t see it.

The authors write:

We were able to isolate the effect of AVR using a common political science method known as “matching.” We ran an algorithm to match areas that imple- mented AVR with demographically similar jurisdictions that did not. Matching similar jurisdictions allowed us to build a baseline figure of what a state’s registration rate would have looked like had it not implemented AVR.

That’s all fine but it doesn’t really address these data issues.

McElwee wrote his own critique of the Morris and Dunphy study, focusing on the difference between “back end” and “front end” registration systems. You can follow the link for details on this.


  1. deronov says:

    what is the specific problem with non-automatic voter registration?

    what is the specific purpose of voter registration?
    (why must voting be a totally separate 2-step process?)

    non-voting is a widespread and common aspect of U.S. elections, but few people are really disturbed by it … unless it threatens their preferred election outcomes.

    Perhaps Automatic Voter Balloting (AVB) should be evaluated and adopted by states.
    AVB uses the very extensive Federal databases on all citizens plus impartial digital algorithms to assess citizen preferences … and automatically cast their election ballots electronically. /s

    • Andrew says:


      It’s a long story, but here are three key points:

      1. Representative democracy. The government represents all of us who live in the United States, not just the people who happen to vote. It makes sense to want more people to vote so that voters are more representative of the population.

      2. Legitimacy of the government. Lower voter turnout can represent less consent of the governed.

      3. Fairness. There are efforts at voter suppression. Everyone should have their chance to vote.

      Finally, I don’t know the full history of voter registration, but I think that one reform that’s been suggested is to eliminate the need for registration. Or allow same-day registration, where you can just go to the polls even if you are not already registered to vote.

      Finally, you might think that low voter turnout is not a problem because people will vote if they want to. But it’s not so simple. When people move, they don’t always get around to registering to vote at their new address. Is it that they don’t want to vote? Not necessarily. People are busy, they don’t get around to registering, etc. For reasons 1, 2, 3 above, there are good reasons to want these people to have their chance to vote too.

      • Wayne says:


        AVR sounds like the ideal front end to ballot harvesting, which has already started turning elections and which often has the same end effect as voter suppression.

        • Dan Fitch says:

          I don’t know how you can say ballot harvesting and voter suppression have the same end effect; they have the opposite effect in total votes cast.

          Also, just saying “ballot harvesting” makes you sound like you do not want the populace to vote.

          Finally, I have to guess that the rising registrations through the year is due to fall elections in the US (even in non-presidential years) often being more important than spring primaries.

  2. Just a guess, but could the reason why registrations increase steadily within each year be that you have to *interact* with the DMV etc to trigger registration? So as people renew expired licenses and buy cars or houses or serve on jury duty or whatever it is they do, they get registered?

    It seems weird though I agree, like is the y axis scale “number of new registrations in this year?” if so it should never go down… if not, then it’s a rate, and they don’t even give the appropriate units (dimensions should be People/time not People)

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      Those are not year-to-date registrations, they are weekly counts. Note as well that the periods don’t correspond to full years: there are less than 12 months in those charts and for some states the end of the previous year is also included.

      • so the label should say “new registration rate (per week)” or something like that. the upward trend is strange. that seems like a sign of a data quality issue, like the reported registration occurs much after the actual due to backlogs or something.

  3. jrkrideau says:

    Interesting in concept. We, in Canada, do this. My Federal confirmation of registration showed up in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I am not sure where the governments get their data from though quite possibly the medical insurance data bases may be the mainstay as just about every Canadian will be in them.

    I have not read the study but the example of Department of Motor Vehicles data base seems to be likely to miss the poorest members of society.

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