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A bipartisan approach to modernizing voter registration

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

In today’s political climate, it can feel like political parties can’t even agree on what time of day it is. But there are some surprising areas of cooperation among Democrats and Republicans at the state level. One such area is in modernizing voter registration with a policy known as automatic voter registration (AVR).

Right now, Illinois is the poster child for bipartisan support for AVR. Earlier this month, the Illinois Senate unanimously passed an AVR bill, garnering support from both parties. And this week, the House Executive Committee also voted unanimously to move the bill to the full House for a vote. Importantly, the state’s Republican governor has also had input on the AVR bill, which bodes well for the its future. Illinois PIRG and the coalition Just Democracy Illinois have made bipartisan support for this AVR bill a priority, working with members of both parties from the very beginning.

And the bipartisan support for AVR isn’t unique to Illinois. Since Oregon first passed AVR in 2015, California, West Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, D.C., Alaska and Colorado have all passed or otherwise begun implementing AVR — red, blue, and purple states have all supported AVR.

Update: On Monday, May 29, the Illinois House unanimously passed the bill. On Tuesday, May 30, Governor Rauner announced he would sign it, making Illinois the ninth state to implement AVR.

Why modernize our registration system?

Modernizing voter registration with AVR uses new technology to digitize the registration process, reducing errors and decreasing costs. In the 2012 election, an estimated 1.2 million votes were lost nationwide because of issues with the voter’s registration, demonstrating the need for an accurate, efficient registration process like AVR.

Instead of using a redundant application for voter registration, AVR uses existing applications for a license, permit, program or service that have all the requisite citizenship information needed to register and then automatically, electronically transmits that information to election officials. The whole process requires less labor and fewer resources which reduces costs; printing, collecting and mailing forms, manual data entry, and sometimes interpreting poor handwriting are all eliminated.

The state saves money, improves accuracy of voter rolls, and brings more citizens into the democratic process with automatic registration. In Illinois, it’s estimated that more than 1 million eligible voters could be securely added to the rolls through this simple policy change.

Illinois is breaking new ground

In theory, AVR doesn’t have to be limited to the DMV — many state agencies already screen for citizenship and other information that is necessary to register people to vote. Yet, to date, no state has implemented AVR at agencies other than the DMV.*

Illinois could change that. In the current draft of the bill, there are four “designated automatic voter registration agencies:” the Department of Human Services, the Department of Employment Security, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and the Department of Natural Resources. All of these agencies will be able to newly register or update a person’s registration anytime they apply for a license, permit, program or service. For example, if you go to the Department of Natural Resources to get a fishing or hunting permit, your permit application can double as a voter registration form.

The diversity of AVR agencies will allow the program to reach more people than a DMV-only system, and creates multiple opportunities for voter rolls to be updated as voter information (such as name or address) changes, improving the accuracy of voter rolls.

As Illinois’ experience is showing, AVR is a bipartisan approach to modernizing our outdated voter registration policies. By automatically registering eligible citizens and digitizing the registration process, AVR can bring more citizens into the democratic process while simultaneously improving the accuracy of our voter rolls and reducing costs.

*Alaska’s automatic voter registration is separate from the DMV, but limited to the state’s unique Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) Application — an annual application that each Alaskan completes in order to receive a dividend funded primarily from the state’s oil revenues.

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