The Case for Automatic Voter Registration in New York State

By Zach Fisch (@ZachFisch)

Any New Yorker who has tried to vote knows that our voting system is truly awful.

There are lots of reasons why, but the most glaringly obvious is our registration requirements: we are one of the few remaining states that requires voters to stamp and mail paper forms, and update their registration every time they move. Voters have to remember to do this at least 25 days before an election – and up to 13 months before an election, depending on the voter’s party affiliation – or they cannot vote. It’s straight out of the 1950s, and it’s a big reason why New York ranked 48th in the nation in voter turnout rate in 2014.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

New York can start to bring our voting system into the 21st century by passing  Automatic Voter Registration (“AVR”). AVR would not only reduce the headache of registering to vote – it would add up to 2 million New Yorkers to the voter rolls, and increase voter turnout and the diversity of the electorate in the process.

AVR works in two steps: first, eligible voters (except those who opt out) are automatically registered after interacting with certain government agencies, like applying for an ID card at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Second, those agencies electronically transfer voter registration information to election officials. It is a simple process that eliminates unnecessary, confusing paperwork and lowers barriers to political participation.

Fifteen states, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, have enacted AVR since 2015, when President Barack Obama called on states to make AVR “the new norm.” It’s easy to see why: AVR brings a ton of people into the political process.

AVR has already been shown to increase turnout. Oregon, which implemented its AVR law in 2015, saw a 4.1 percent increase in turnout in 2016 over the non-AVR 2012 election – the highest increase in the nation. Over 100,000 voters were registered through AVR; most of those voters were unlikely to have voted in the absence of AVR.

By removing arbitrary barriers to registration, AVR makes the electorate younger and more racially and socioeconomically diverse. In Oregon, 37 percent of AVR voters were 30 or younger, an age group that comprises just 20 percent of Oregon’s population. In contrast, just 13 percent of non-AVR voters who were registered during the same time frame were between the ages of 18 and 29. Eleven percent of AVR voters were people of color, compared to just 6 percent of non-AVR voters. The median income of a AVR voter was also significantly lower than that of non-AVR voters.

New York should pass AVR as soon as possible. According to Data for Progress, 64% of likely voters in New York agree.

The state cannot use budget concerns as an excuse for not acting: AVR would actually save money. As it turns out, it’s much cheaper to conduct registration digitally than to have every registration form processed by hand. In Arizona, the switch from manual to automatic registration drove costs down from $0.83 per registrant to just $.04 with an electronic system.

Even better, AVR would make our elections more secure and less susceptible to hackers targeting vulnerable county election boards. In addition, AVR would make it harder for election boards to commit massive purges in error, as in 2016, when 200,000 New York City voters were mistakenly deleted from the rolls and left without recourse to cast their vote.

The implementation of back-end AVR could have huge policy ramifications. If young people, people of color, and low-income voters are better able to hold their elected officials accountable through participation in the electoral process, policy outcomes would better reflect the oft-overlooked needs of those groups.

As it stands, New York appears poised to pass AVR. The key issue, then, is whether New York will learn from the best practices – and mistakes – of other states who have already implemented AVR.

New York should include multiple source agencies, including the Department of Health, Department of Motor Vehicles, public housing authorities, and public universities, to ensure all eligible voters are covered. Commendably, both the Assembly and Senate AVR bills have this provision.

Crucially, our AVR must include a back-end system, rather than a front-end system. A back-end system automatically adds eligible voters to the rolls without requiring the voter to jump through additional hoops at the source agency, giving them the chance to opt out by mail afterward. By comparison, a front-end system requires eligible voters to make decisions about registration while interacting with the target agency, leaving it far more prone to mistakes. States that have implemented a back-end system have seen much higher percentage of eligible voters – Oregon’s back-end system registered a full 94 percent of eligible voters who interacted with the DMV, while California’s front-end system registered just 60% of those voters.

This has become a key point of contention between the Senate and the Assembly. The Senate version of the bill includes the gold standard of back-end AVR. But the Assembly version of the bill provides for a watered-down front-end system. We have the opportunity to pass historic reforms to restore civil rights to all New Yorkers; we cannot squander that opportunity by allowing the Assembly’s proposal to pass.

At this crucial juncture, when lawmakers in Albany are deciding which system to adopt, we need your voice. We need you to call your Assembly Member and let them know you support making it easier for New Yorkers to vote by adopting a back-end AVR system.

To be clear, AVR will not fix all of the structural issues preventing everyone from having their voice heard in our democracy. But because it can bring hundreds of thousands of people into the political process, it’s an ideal place to start.

Zach Fisch (@ZachFisch) is a Senior Advisor to AVR NOW and a third-year student at Harvard Law School. He is active in the movement for electoral reform, organizing for automatic voter registration and public campaign financing. He is a native of Greenburgh, NY. 

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