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Ohio May Launch Automatic Voter Registration. Could It Boost Turnout?

Franklin County Board of Elections director David Payne talks to a voter on Saturday, the day after the county set an all-time in-person early voting record of more than 6,800 voters.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio
Franklin County Board of Elections director David Payne talks to a voter on Saturday, the day after the county set an all-time in-person early voting record of more than 6,800 voters.

In the days before Tuesday's primary election, Republican Secretary Frank LaRose showed up at a Columbus retirement home to walk residents through using the state's new voting machines. Organizers set up a mock ballot asking about favorite dog breed, beach or hobbies.

“Now on this one, like in a city council race, for example, you can select two if you wish,” LaRose explains to woman working through her ballot (She chose cooking and watching TV as her favorite hobbies.)

While he's overseeing the state's voting machine updates, LaRose says he also wants to modernize the way Ohioans register to vote. 

“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,” LaRose says. “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 approved 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 turnout?

Vermont instituted an AVR system in 2017, and it helped push voter registrations to about 98 percent—up a handful of points since the switch. The state’s voter turnout percentage was up as well in 2018 compared to the previous two midterms.

“We look at what we did here in Vermont, and we had the highest ballot count for a midterm in history in 2018,” says Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos.

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 own automatic registration system in time for last year’s election, but Rey Lopez-Calderon from the voting rights group Common Cause California notes it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions.

“Sure, you’re going to have more voters,” he says. “But in terms of wrapping your head around the exact number it’s hard to tell right now.”

Like Vermont, California saw stronger turnout figures in 2018 than in its recent midterms. But problems dogged the system’s rollout, and the state’s overall registration percentage is 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 says. “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,” Tennant says. “So that gives about like a 40 percent turnout of just those AVR registrants.”

Tennant says right now they can show AVR increases registration, but defining its role in turnout will take time. Oregon, the very first state to implement the idea, has only offered it 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,” LaRose says.

LaRose says moving to a system where voter information is continually updated could do away with large-scale voter purges, Ohio's much-criticized policy of eliminating voters who fail to participate in several elections. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the practice as unconstitutional.

LaRose has bipartisan support for his plan, with state Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney (D-Cleveland) and Sen. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) signing 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.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.