By: Jared Mullen
As the final votes are counted following the 2018 midterms, attention inevitably shifts to 2020 and the presidential primaries. In Massachusetts, that will mean a new automatic voter registration (AVR) system, which will automatically register any citizen who completes a transaction at the Registry of Motor Vehicles or signs up for MassHealth, a state insurance provider. The AVR system, which was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker in August 2018, also allows the Secretary of State to expand the program to other state social agencies once state employees verify that they collect the requisite information to register voters. Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, estimates that AVR could bring 500,000 new voters on to the rolls in the state. Common Cause estimates that there are approximately 650,000 Massachusetts residents who are not registered to vote despite being eligible.
Massachusetts was the fourteenth state to implement an AVR system. During the 2018 midterms, both Michigan and Nevada adopted ballot measures instituting AVR, bringing the total number of AVR states to 15. Proponents of AVR tout it as a commonsense reform to voter registration processes that not only increases registration rates, but leads to more accurate voter rolls by automatically updating voter rolls every time a citizen interacts with state agencies. They also say that AVR reduces administrative costs by eliminating the need for registration officials to process thousands of hand-written registration forms that may contain mistakes and must be resubmitted every time a citizen moves.
Opponents of AVR argue that an automatic registration system violates citizens’ free speech and privacy rights by forcing inclusion in the system. They argue that declining to register can be an act of political expression and point out that, because voter registration lists are publicly available, an AVR system could reveal information about citizens that they would rather keep private. They also argue that an AVR system could open the door to voter fraud by placing thousands of people on the voter rolls that do not intend to vote, thereby creating the opportunity for in-person fraud. Finally, they argue that an AVR system could lead to undocumented immigrants becoming registered in states that issue driver’s licenses to undocumented persons.
Proponents of AVR systems have responded to these concerns by emphasizing that AVR is not a mandatory registration program. In all the states where it has been implemented, including Massachusetts, citizens have the opportunity to opt out if they feel strongly about being registered for political or privacy reasons. Additionally, they point out that there is little evidence of any in-person voter fraud in U.S. elections and instances of undocumented persons voting is vanishingly rare, as people without legal status typically avoid interaction with the government.
Thus far, the evidence suggests that AVR has been highly successful. In Oregon, registration rates quadrupled after the state implemented AVR, leading to a 10% increase in the total number of registered voters. With the success of the ballot initiatives in Michigan and Nevada, AVR seems to be catching on nationwide. In Massachusetts, the Secretary of State, William Galvin, plans to begin automatically registering voters on January 1, 2020. The new system could potentially allow thousands of currently unregistered citizens to participate in what will certainly be a closely watched electoral cycle.