AVR Reduces Racial and Economic Disparities in the Election Process
- Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) constitutes a critical first step in reducing racial disparities in the election process.
- AVR shrinks historical registration gaps among minority and low-income voters, and lays the groundwork for other reforms aimed at helping these communities.
- AVR also counters aggressive voter purging, a process that disproportionately removes these voters from the rolls with little notice.
- By keeping voter rolls accurate and up-to-date, AVR likewise reduces provisional ballots and long lines on election day, problems that are particularly acute in low-income and minority communities.
- Finally, by maintaining current and verified registration rolls, AVR undermines the theoretical arguments for photo ID laws, which disproportionately impact these voters.
AVR brings as many people into the democratic process as possible. Every eligible person who obtains a driver’s license, signs up for Medicaid, or interacts with another covered agency—essentially every eligible member of society—will be added to the voter rolls or have their registration updated, without any extra effort on the registrant’s part. AVR’s scope is staggering: DMVs reach roughly 85% of the population (and more than 90% of people between age 30 and 75), Medicaid covers nearly 82 million people, and additional agencies reach millions more (1).
Because it reaches such a broad swath of the population, AVR registers people left out by traditional registration methods. Existing voter registration processes, requiring information gathering, effort, and resources on the part of the registrant, have historically (and some argue, intentionally) resulted in significant registration disparities on the basis of race and income (2). Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voter registration falls short of white registration, and registration rates are significantly lower among low-income individuals (3). Evidence shows that AVR closes these gaps. In Oregon, which pioneered the most robust form of AVR, voters registered through the system are significantly more diverse and lower income than the traditional registration pool. Research from other states confirms that AVR registers substantially more Latino and Asian-American voters than existing methods of registration (4).
By eliminating the traditional barriers and burdens of registration, AVR ensures a more racially and economically representative registered voter pool. AVR is thus the necessary first step in ending racial and economic injustice in the electoral process. Other reforms meant to help minority and low-income voters, such as efforts to adopt universal mail voting, mitigate photo ID laws, expand early voting, or ensure language access, are meaningless if these voters are never actually registered and eligible to participate.
AVR also combats racial and economic injustice by countering restrictive registration and purging practices. Because minority and low-income voters are more mobile and less likely to vote, they are more likely to be removed from the rolls for changes of address and voter inactivity, often with little notice of the change (5). Using verified information provided to a government agency, AVR ensures that these individuals stay on the rolls, either at their current address or at any new address provided to the DMV or Medicaid. Similarly, as more states move to restrict community registration drives that help bring minority voters into the process, AVR fills the gap, ensuring that the voters served by these drives don’t slip through the cracks (6).
AVR similarly prevents racial disparities on election day. Voters with out of date addresses or other registration issues are typically required to cast provisional ballots on election day (7). These ballots, which are significantly more common among minority and low-income voters, are time-consuming to complete and result in long lines at the polls, both for provisional voters and voters generally. Making matters worse, hundreds of thousands of provisional ballots are rejected each election due to clerical errors or state laws preventing registration updates at the polls. By updating registration information well in advance of election day, AVR keeps these voters out of the provisional ballot process, reducing the threat of long lines and lost votes, particularly in low-income and racially diverse communities.
Finally, AVR significantly undercuts the theoretical arguments for photo ID laws, providing an additional benefit for low-income and minority communities disproportionately impacted by these laws. Proponents of photo ID laws argue that voters who simply mail in a registration form are never sufficiently verified, and that photo ID is necessary to protect fraudulent registrants from casting a ballot. Likewise, they argue that registration rolls are bloated with inactive or out of date registrations, creating an opportunity for voter impersonation fraud by bad actors (8). AVR provides a strong counter to both claims. Every person added to the rolls through AVR is verified by a government agency, eliminating the risk of fraudulent registrations. Similarly, because AVR provides the best system for keeping registration records current and accurate, the potential for impersonation fraud using out of date records is significantly reduced.
When the impact of the policy is viewed as a whole, AVR combats racial and economic injustice at nearly every stage of the political process. The system ensures that voter registration pools are more diverse and reflective of the eligible voter population, thereby increasing the impact of downstream reforms meant to help minority and low-income voters participate in the political process. At the same time, AVR successfully counters racial disparities in voter purging and provisional ballots, and undercuts the theoretical case for discriminatory photo ID laws.
(1) U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Highway Policy Information, Distribution of Licensed Drivers – 2020, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2020/dl20.cfm; Medicaid.gov, May 2022 Medicaid & CHIP Enrollment Data Highlights, https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/program-information/medicaid-and-chip-enrollment-data/report-highlights/index.html.
(2) Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote 124 (2009).
(3) Center for American Progress, Increasing Voter Participation in America, July 11, 2018, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2018/07/11/453319/increasing-voter-participation-america/.
(4) Center for American Progress, Who Votes with Automatic Voter Registration, June 7, 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2017/06/07/433677/votes-automatic-voter-registration/; Eric McGhee & Mindy Romero, Registration Effects of Automatic Voter Registration in the United States (Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference, 2019).
(5) See Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Inst. 138 S.Ct. 1833, 1865 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).
(6) See League of Women Voters v. Hargatt, 400 F.Supp.3d 706 (M.D. Tenn. 2019).
(7) All Voting is Local, Rejected: How the Provisional Ballot System in Franklin County, Ohio Fails Voters at 5, https://allvotingislocal.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019_AVL-OH_Franklin-Co-Provisional-Ballot-Report.pdf
(8) See, e.g., Weinschenk v. State, 203 S.W.3d 201, 228-29 (Mo. 2006) (Limbaugh, J., dissenting).