Automatic voter reregistration can substantially boost turnout

Government efforts to keep registered voters on the rolls when they move from one address to another substantially boost those voters’ likelihood of casting a ballot, my research has found.

It’s long been known that the rules about how and when to register to vote – which differ by state – present a significant obstacle for people who want to participate in democracy. In many nations, including Germany, Denmark, South Korea, Chile, Israel and others, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they become eligible to vote. Registration is the government’s responsibility.

Some groups have called for the U.S. or its states to adopt similar policies, broadly called “automatic voter registration.” Indeed, it was a major part of the For the People Act, a bill introduced in early 2021 to address various aspects of U.S. election systems.

There is an existing federal law, often called the “motor-voter law,” that allows people who are getting a driver’s license to choose to simultaneously register to vote for federal elections.

Automatic voter registration, by contrast, makes the choice for people, and requires them to opt out of voter registration if they wish. In 2016, Oregon became the first state to adopt this policy statewide, eliminating the need for voters to take an extra registration step.

In the meantime, some communities are trying to help registered voters keep their registrations active. For instance, in 2018, election officials in California contacted people who were registered to vote but who had told the U.S. Postal Service they had moved. I evaluated this practice, called automatic reregistration, to see how well it worked to keep voters actively participating in democratic self-government.

Automatic voter reregistration

Starting in 2015, the state of California began matching voter registration data to data collected by the U.S. Postal Service when people ask to have their mail forwarded. When someone was detected as having moved within California, the county where they had been registered to vote would send out a postcard to the new address, asking them to verify that they had moved. Unless they explicitly told the county otherwise, the voter will be automatically reregistered at the new address.

I examined turnout data from Orange County, California, using voters who had moved within the county in June 2018. Voters who moved in the first half of June were automatically reregistered. But those who moved later in the month were not, because they moved too late: A law requires this type of records update to be completed well in advance of a federal election. Apart from the dates of their moves, these two groups of voters were very similar. That allowed me to isolate the effect of automatic reregistration on people’s voting habits.

Overall, my analysis found that automatic reregistration boosted voter turnout by 5.8 percentage points over those who were not automatically reregistered.

There were partisan differences. Automatic reregistration had no statistically significant effect on Democrats’ turnout but boosted Republican turnout by 8.1 points – and lifted the turnout of people who did not identify with either party by 7.4 points.