Ohio Can Learn from Other States When Implementing Automatic Voter Registration

May 7, 2019

Ohio’s new secretary of state wants to make registering to vote automatic.  

Republican Frank LaRose’s plan would automatically register voters and update their registrations every time they interact with state government.  Eight states already have similar systems.  

Running elections is a prime focus of the secretary of state’s office. Ohio's new Secretary of State Frank LaRose was working to show retirees how easy it is to use new voting machines. "So now you are ready to make your choices," LaRose demonstrated. "Now that you have your ballot, you can pull it straight out.”

While he oversees voting machine updates statewide, LaRose said he wants to modernize the way Ohioans get registered. “What we’re proposing is an opt out instead of an opt in system and an opportunity to get registered to vote at many interactions with state government, and so here are the examples I’ve given: when someone gets a fishing license, when someone pays their taxes, renews their driver’s license or gets their driver’s license for the first time.”

Fifteen states around the country have similar programs—commonly referred to as automatic voter registration or AVR. The idea is still in its infancy, and policies vary from state to state. That makes it difficult to answer the most salient question: what does AVR do to voter turn out?

“We look at what we did here in Vermont and we had the highest ballot count for a midterm in history in 2018,” said Jim Condos, who serves as Vermont’s secretary of state. Vermont instituted its AVR system in 2017, and it has helped push registrations to about 98 percent—up a handful of points since the switch. The state’s turnout percentage was up in 2018, compared to the previous two midterms. But Condos warns there are too many factors to simply chalk it up to AVR. Last year was a historically strong midterm election around the country and Vermont started allowing same day registration as well.

California rolled out its automatic registration system in time for last year’s election, but Rey Lopez-Calderon from the voting rights group Common Cause California, said it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions. “Sure you’re going to have more voters, but in terms of wrapping your head around the exact number it’s hard to tell right now,” Lopez-Calderon said. 

Like Vermont, California saw stronger turnout figures in 2018 than in its recent midterms. But problems dogged the system’s roll out and the state’s overall registration numbers are nowhere near as high as Vermont. “It’s not a silver bullet right, you’re not going to pass automatic voter registration and then all of the sudden you have 90 percent turnout for elections," Lopez-Calderon said. "There’s a whole lot of other things that keep people at home that you can’t just legislate, but I think it does help.”

Researchers working on AVR stress it’s too soon to quantify the policy’s impact on turnout. But Natalie Tennant, head of state advocacy for the Brennan Center, points to promising signs out of Oregon. “About 226,000 people were registered through the automatic voter registration process and of those 226,000 about 100,000 voted, so that gives about like a 40 percent turnout of just those AVR registrants."

Tennant said they can show AVR increases registration, but defining its impact on turnout will take time. Oregon, the very first state to implement the idea, has only had it in place for two federal elections.  Meanwhile other states like West Virginia or Illinois are wrestling with simply getting their programs off the ground.

“This is the great thing about the sort of 50 states experiments in democracy that we can look at what one state did, where it went well and emulate that, and we can look at what another state did where it went poorly and we can avoid that,” said Frank LaRose regarding Ohio's rollout of the idea. 

LaRose has bipartisan support for his plan. State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney (D-Cleveland) and State Sen. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) have signed on. They haven’t come up with draft language yet, but the secretary says they’re emphasizing  greater civic engagement and more accurate voter rolls.