It’s a common-sense idea: If you want people to do something, make it as easy as possible. It’s why pizza places deliver right to your door. It’s why Summit County Public Health offers reduced-cost flu vaccines for kids. New Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said he wants to make it easier for citizens to “get registered and stay registered.” To do that, Ohio should adopt Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).
For people who are eligible, AVR removes barriers to registration, updating voter rolls with information that’s already being collected elsewhere: the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and social service agencies. Automatic registration transmits a steady stream of information from government agencies to elections officials, who verify eligibility.
Because it’s fully digital, AVR reduces errors that result from, say, illegible handwriting, or careless data entry. It reduces wait-times at the ballot box, too, since it’s often those errors that cause slow-downs. Automatic registration also reduces the costs of printing, mailing and processing paper registration forms. In other words, AVR makes voter rolls more current and accurate, voting easier and quicker, and elections less expensive.
AVR makes voting easier for those who are eligible while also screening out those who aren’t. To avoid registering people who are legally prevented from voting, AVR systems simply leave out everyone who fails to meet federal requirements for age and citizenship status, and those who are prevented from voting under state law, such as people who’ve been convicted more than once of violating election laws. Ohio already has all these pieces of information on record; automatic registration would require little more than giving elections officials access to them.
Automatically registering eligible voters would make a big difference in Ohio’s electorate. Roughly one out of 10 eligible Ohioans were not registered to vote in the 2016 general election, according to the office of the secretary of state. That’s potentially 875,000 more Ohioans who could have exercised their right to vote if AVR were in place.
Early adopters of AVR have already seen results. As of November 2018, 15 states — including Ohio neighbors Michigan and West Virginia — have approved AVR policies. In the 2016 election, nearly 100,000 automatically registered Oregon voters cast ballots. In Vermont, more than 12,000 voters registered or updated their registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles in the program’s first six months.
After the 2018 midterm elections, fans of democracy celebrated a jump in voter turnout — to about 47 percent. It was worth celebrating because the more engaged our electorate, the more able we are to take back power from moneyed interests, who have too much influence on our public policy.
But we’re still a long way from full participation. AVR alone won’t get us there — decades of voter suppression efforts have disenfranchised many people, and given many good reason to doubt the electoral process. We do some things right, such as letting former felons vote after they’ve served their time. But Ohio is particularly infamous for undemocratic practices, from our ridiculously gerrymandered legislative districts to our voter purges.
As one of his final acts as secretary of state, now Lt. Gov. Jon Husted sent notices to 275,000 inactive Ohio voters that they would be removed from the rolls and must re-register if they want to vote in the future. In July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Husted’s purges legal, rejecting arguments that they violated the National Voter Registration Act.
LaRose has some good ideas to make it easier for Ohioans to participate in democracy. He wants to encouraged registration any time an Ohio resident encounters the state government — at the BMV, for example. We should do that. And then we should do more.
Those of us who really believe in the power of participatory democracy have to roll up our sleeves. Because registration is a necessary condition for voting, Automatic Voter Registration is a good way to start, a step toward a government that represents all of us.
Stein is a staff associate at Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland-based think tank.