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Voter Registration: Not Quite Automatic Yet

Eric McGhee November 11, 2015

The New Motor Voter Act creates a computerized voter registration process for anyone who uses the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to apply for a new driver’s license, renew an old one, or change their address. The law—AB 1461—reduces paperwork and transfers voter registration information electronically from the DMV to the secretary of state. It has the potential to register millions more residents and virtually eliminate one of the most important administrative hurdles to voter participation.

However, the devil is in the details. Whether AB 1461 will result in big increases in registration will depend largely on how the law is implemented. Though the new registration process is sometimes called automatic, it does not actually register anyone by default. At its core, the law simply tells the DMV to transfer information to the secretary of state and then tells the secretary what to do with that information.

Some information is guaranteed to be there. DMV applicants will be required—as they are now—to provide their name, date of birth, address, and the like. If they don’t answer these questions, the process of getting a driver’s license stops.

Other information is less certain. The law adds two pieces of information that together determine whether DMV customers get registered to vote: first, whether they attest that they are eligible to vote, and second, whether they decline to be registered. Customers who attest to eligibility and do not decline will be added to the voter rolls. Yet unlike the other items listed above, applicants don’t currently have to answer either question to get a driver’s license.

Note also the significant difference between the two questions. The eligibility question has the secretary of state looking for a “yes”: DMV customers will not be registered unless they attest to eligibility, which means that any customer who fails to answer the question will not be registered. By contrast, the registration question has the secretary looking for a “no”: customers will be registered unless they do not want to be. That means that those who fail to answer this question will be registered, as long as they also say they are eligible.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this distinction. Research on how people make decisions has consistently demonstrated the power of the default option. People are much more likely to sign up when enrollment is the default option—even when there is an option to decline—than they are when nonparticipation is the default. The option to enroll as an organ donor when getting a driver’s license offers a particularly apt example. Many do not sign up even though it’s not very hard to do, and even if they say they are willing, in principle, to become donors. In one study, 82 percent became donors when they had to opt out explicitly, compared to 42 percent when they had to opt in.

Given this reality, the default option can be critical. If the goal is a large increase in registration, the fact that the eligibility question requires people to opt in should be a cause of concern.

This suggests a solution: the DMV should make a response to the eligibility question a condition for receiving a driver’s license. Some have already called for this approach, which is not as onerous as it may sound. Driver’s license applicants are already required to provide documented proof of legal residence, such as a birth certificate or passport. That’s a much higher hurdle than answering a single question.

In Oregon—which became the first state to adopt automated registration earlier this year—such proof of legal residence is also required, but it’s automatically treated as evidence of eligibility. No additional question is needed. If California were to require a response to its eligibility question, its system would be essentially identical to the one in Oregon on most important dimensions. In fact, by allowing people to opt out up front, the California system would be more transparent and might do a better job of preserving freedom of choice.

The California DMV could go a step further and also require a response on the registration question, thus ensuring that people know they are being registered. There is no reason to think that forcing a choice in this way would limit the law’s impact. The study on organ donor participation mentioned above found that enrollment declined only slightly (from 82% to 79%) when people were asked to make the choice explicitly. It seems fair to expect a similar dynamic with voter registration. Only those firmly opposed to being registered are likely to say “no” to registration, and that group will probably be small.

In short, AB 1461 could result in a legitimately automatic registration system similar to the one in Oregon and many other countries. Such a system would eventually bring the vast majority of eligible unregistered adults onto the voter rolls. But the law’s potential will only be realized if the state truly streamlines the process to make it as easy as possible.

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