Since the United States was founded, Americans have been fighting over who should be able to vote. That battle has heated up since the 2020 election. Republicans and others on the right argue that to prevent election fraud, states should require voters to show ID at the polls and should regularly purge the registration rolls of voters who haven’t recently cast ballots. Democrats and others on the left argue that it should be easier to vote, in part to bring in citizens from traditionally disenfranchised and underrepresented groups. This group sometimes claims that efforts to prevent fraud amount to voter suppression.
How can these apparently competing concerns be resolved? Our research finds that both goals — reducing fraud and making it easier to vote — can be reached through automatic voter registration.
Some states have already made it easier to register to vote
Before they can cast a ballot, an American must register to vote. In most states this involves finding out when and where to register, acquiring and filling out the form (in person or online), and showing whatever documents are required to prove citizenship and residency in the state.
What if there were an easier way?
Some states have already done away with complicated registration procedures. In North Dakota, you can vote without being registered, as long as you can show identification such as a driver’s license to prove you’re eligible. In many other states, you can register as late as Election Day.
However, many election administrators and voters find advance registration helpful. That way, election administrators can properly plan to have enough polling places, ballots and officials on hand. For voters, registration brings mailers with background on elections and referendums and other advance notices that can remind them when and where to cast their ballots.
Is there an option that maintains a voter registration list while easing the burden on citizens? Some states have found what they think is the solution: automatic voter registration. In this type of process, the state automatically registers any eligible voter who interacts with statewide databases, as when applying for or renewing a driver’s license. To do so, the state links its voter registration list to other population lists the state is already collecting. For instance, when you renew a driver’s license, if you are a U.S. citizen, the computer checks whether your name, age and address are in the voter rolls — and if not, adds you automatically.
That relieves citizens of an administrative chore and potentially increases the registration lists’ accuracy.
Some have argued that this might result in inaccurate registers — for instance, by inadvertently registering noncitizens — causing confusion at the polls. Is that accurate?
The global evidence and experience
In our research on voter registration around the globe, we find that government agencies quite commonly use existing databases to create a voters list. In our research, 78 countries worldwide automatically register voters in some way, out of a sample of 156. Others share databases to facilitate voting in some way that isn’t quite automatic, but does receive information from other government databases or subnational electoral officials, as Canada does. For example, Finland’s population registry automatically creates a list of eligible voters that’s delivered to election officials six weeks before the election.
Our research finds that countries with some form of automatic or government-initiated voter registration tend to have more complete and more accurate lists than do systems in which individuals must register themselves. They list more of the people who are eligible to vote, and do so more accurately — updating addresses, for instance, when there’s a postal change, without the voter having to inform the registry when they move.
Some U.S. states have joined this trend. Since the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, states have been required to enable voters to register at motor vehicle agencies. But there’s been a bigger push more recently. In 2021, Hawaii became the most recent state to pass a law enabling automatic voter registration. Other state legislatures are working on similar bills.
Automatic voter registration doesn’t appear to substantially increase turnout, according to recent research. But in making voting lists more complete and accurate, states may make it easier for some population groups, especially minorities and poorer citizens, to vote.
The United States doesn’t have national or statewide population registries, so how can it register voters automatically?
When a country doesn’t have reliable, centralized data on its citizens, it must find other ways to register voters. In the United Kingdom, for example, some advocates recommend that the country automatically register citizens to vote at key life moments using the Social Security databases or when applications are made for a passport. Many U.S. states could use a similar approach, capturing key data when citizens interact with government agencies ranging from the Department of Motor Vehicles to social service agencies.
Heated partisan debates about the rules of democracy can undermine trust in democratic institutions and complicate policymaking. Academic evidence suggests that automatic voter registration can deliver accurate and complete registers, expanding and safeguarding democracy.
Holly Ann Garnett (@hollyanngarnett) is an associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada, co-director of the Electoral Integrity Project, and co-editor (with Michael Pal) of Cyber-Threats to Canadian Democracy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).
Toby S. James (@tobysjames) is a professor of politics and public policy at the University of East Anglia, U.K., co-director of the Electoral Integrity Project, and author of Comparative Electoral Management: Performance, Networks and Instruments (Routledge, 2020).
Updated Oct. 11, 2023