This week, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration. If you’re an Oregonian over 18, and if you’ve dealt with the state’s Driver and Motor Vehicles Division since 2013, you'll get a notice in the mail letting you know you’re registered to vote.
Then, unless you opt out within three weeks, you'll automatically receive a ballot 20 days before every election. (Oregon has all-mail voting.) Almost immediately, 300,000 more voters – a big chunk of the estimated 800,000 state residents who are eligible but still unregistered – are likely to be signed up.
It’s fitting that Oregon passed its law just after the 50th anniversary of the Selma, Alabama, voting rights march. Too often people assume that the U.S. has solved its voting-rights problem, and see Selma as no more than an occasion for pride and celebration. The truth is that voting rights remain a work in progress. Oregon’s new law points to a simple, inexpensive and promising way forward.
Consider a few numbers. In 1996, 71 percent of Americans were registeredto vote in presidential elections. In 2012, the rate was 71.2 percent – essentially unchanged. For the past 20 years, more than 25 percent of eligible American voters, meaning more than 50 million people, have not been registered to vote for president. Nonregistration rates are especially high for certain demographic groups – young adults, for example, and people without a lot of education, and Hispanics. (The African- American registration rate is very high.)
Registration rates are also a lot lower in some states than in others. In recent years, more than one-third of eligible citizens have remained unregistered in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming. But even in states with relatively high rates, such as Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi, at least 15 percent of eligible citizens are not signed up.
A contributing factor is that, in some places, getting and staying registered is not nearly as simple as it should be. A 2001 task force chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford concluded that registration laws in the U.S. are “among the world’s most demanding” and help explain why American voter turnout is “near the bottom of the developed world.” When people move, they can fall off the rolls, even if they stay in the same state.
With its voter registration initiative, Oregon is adopting the kind of automatic enrollment policy that has worked well in other domains. For example, in recent years, U.S. employers have widely adopted automatic enrollment in employee 401(k) plans – leading to an enormous increase in participation in such plans.
Similarly, Congress has authorized the Department of Agriculture to adopt “direct certification” programs to give millions of poor children access to free school meals. Before this automatic enrollment, many eligible children were not signed up (maybe because their parents were busy or confused about the application process).
Automatic voter registration promises not only to expand the voter rolls but also to save money. In any given year, the states receive tens of millions of registration forms (often on paper). And according to one estimate, the U.S. as a whole spends $700 million a year on registration.
Any automatic system must, of course, be designed to reduce the risk of error or fraud, or invasion of privacy. As the pioneer, Oregon will have to be especially careful to meet these challenges, so other states will be inspired to follow suit. Let’s hope that they are – and soon.
Cass R. Sunstein, a Bloomberg View columnist, is director of the Harvard Law School’s program on behavioral economics and public policy.