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Automatic Voter Registration Could Have A Big Impact By 2020 Election


California is on the verge of automatically registering residents to vote. Everyone who meets the legal requirements will be registered when they update their driver's licenses or state IDs. That would make California the 12th state in recent years to adopt automatic voter registration. Mary Plummer is a political reporter for member station KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., and she explained how her state system will work.

MARY PLUMMER, BYLINE: In California, when you go to the DMV, you don't have to fill out a separate form to register to vote. The voter registration questions will be integrated into the driver's license applications. And there is a box that you can check if you don't want to register to vote and you want to opt out.

CHANG: Now, California is one of the states that let people who are in the country illegally get driver's licenses, right?

PLUMMER: Yes, that's exactly right.

CHANG: So how are officials making sure that they don't get registered to vote?

PLUMMER: Election officials tell me that there are protections against that. Here in California, all of the information submitted by residents to the DMV is then cross-checked against the statewide voter registration database. I should say, you know, California's driver's license program for unauthorized immigrants began in 2015. And officials here just announced that more than one million people have now received licenses. So it's a lot of folks, but those residents can't get registered to vote.


PLUMMER: The DMV here is legally prohibited from sending any of their information to the secretary of state's office.

CHANG: Why are more and more states going to automatic voter registration?

PLUMMER: You know, low turnout for one. Here in LA County especially, this is something that we've really struggled with. LA has really had a challenge with voter turnout. And also, you know, a recognition that a system where voters have to take action to get registered tends to leave out younger people and people who are immigrants or less well-educated - you know, folks who don't have strong family histories of voting.

CHANG: And are we actually seeing automatic voter registration make a real difference when it comes to voter turnout - I mean, in states that have had this in place for a while?

PLUMMER: There are, you know, some early indications that it helps. Oregon was the first state to try this. And in Oregon, it actually increased turnout a bit after they made the switch. About a hundred thousand voters who registered through this system showed up to vote.


PLUMMER: It's unclear, you know, how big of a boost this will have on voter turnout here in California. Researchers I've talked to don't expect to see too big of a change during this year's midterm elections. The bigger question is really 2020. By that time, it's estimated we could have around two million additional voters on the rolls as a result of this new automated registration system. And those voters will largely be younger - more likely to be Latino than the current pool of registered voters in California. Just for some perspective - you know, California is a really huge state. The secretary of state's office here says we have more than six million eligible but unregistered voters in California.

CHANG: Wow, that's huge.


CHANG: Now, how controversial is automatic voter registration? Because it doesn't seem to get a lot of pushback or attention, considering how much conflict there's been over other ways states have tried changing their voting systems.

PLUMMER: That's exactly right. Automated voter registration has certainly been approved in both liberal states and more conservative states, like West Virginia and Georgia. Overall, this is widely viewed as a way to modernize our voting system. It's a cost saver. And we're on track to have about a quarter of Americans living in states that have implemented automatic voter registration by the end of the year.

CHANG: Mary Plummer is a political reporter from member station KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. Thank you.

PLUMMER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "CAPRICE DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Plummer

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