By Julian Miller
In July 2022, Charles Allen, Councilmember for Ward 6, introduced a new bill. The bill was introduced as the “Automatic Voter Registration Expansion Amendment Act of 2022.” This builds on Allen’s introduction of the Automatic Voter Registration Amendment Act of 2015, which passed unanimously in 2017 (D.C. Law 21-208). This new bill would change automatic voter registration (AVR) from “front-end” opt-out automatic voter registration to “back-end” opt-out automatic voter registration, and it would add any D.C. voter who interacts with source agencies to a “preapproved for registration list.” This change would allow anyone on the “preapproved for registration list” to register to vote by showing up to vote or voting by mail.
AVR automatically registers eligible individuals to vote when they have had an interaction with certain government agencies, most often the Department of Motor Vehicles. As of recently 12 states have included other government agencies in their AVR policies.
AVR grew most rapidly out of the passage of the National Voter Registration Act by Congress in 1993. In doing so, the United States took steps towards making the process of registering to vote easier and more accessible by enacting certain voting registration requirements for offering voting registration opportunities at the state level. As of 2022, according to the National Conference of State Legislature, 22 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted some kind of AVR to increase voter registration.
Front-end opt out AVR allows for an individual at certain government agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, to register or decline while at the “point of service.” In contrast, back-end opt out AVR, as the name suggests, gives the individual the option to register after “point of service.” Instead, an individual receives a notification that they will be registered to vote after their interaction at the agency. Further, if the individual does not respond to the mail and actively declines registration, the individual is automatically registered.
In general, and also incredibly important when noting the United States history of voter suppression, AVR has proven to be most beneficial for underrepresented and underserved populations in the United States. In D.C., the recently introduced Automatic Voter Registration Expansion Amendment Act of 2022 focuses on the method in which automatic registration occurs. Charles Allen cites to the fact that Back-end opt-out AVR is seen as superior to front-end AVR by election experts.
Proponents of the back-end opt-out AVR argue that it is: 1) more effective, 2) more efficient, and 3) more secure than front-end opt-out AVR. First, concerning effectiveness, by comparing states that employ different AVR systems researchers found that back-end opt-out systems of AVR add more voting-eligible individuals to voter rolls when compared to front-end systems. Proponents argue that the multiple steps that back-end systems employ in order to opt out make it more likely that voting-eligible individuals won’t choose to opt out. Second, the back-end opt-out AVR system is more efficient than the front-end system, as those in charge of carrying out the bulk of this registration process are state officials who have been trained and are paid to do so. Proponents argue that taking this pressure off of an individual makes AVR systems more efficient. Along the same lines, proponents argue that the state is better equipped than an individual, when taking into account language and socio-economic barriers, to know whether an individual is eligible for registration. Proponents argue that this makes United States elections more secure as government agencies have the proper toolbox to decide which individuals are eligible to vote and which are not. Therefore, the onus should be on the state to confirm an individual’s eligibility for registration by using the information they have at their disposal.
Some opposition to AVR in general, and the preferred back-end opt out AVR in particular, is heavily partisan. For instance, those in opposition to AVR feel that its hidden intent is to benefit the Democratic party, based on the idea that individuals who aren’t registered to vote are more likely to vote Democrat. However, a 2022 AVR report by Rachel Funk Fordham found that multiple studies have found that there is no “significant partisan bias” that favors Democrats stemming from state AVR policies. Other opposition to back-end opt-out AVR argues that this could potentially register noncitizens, thereby increasing the likelihood that noncitizens are prosecuted for voter fraud.
If increased registration is what the bill intends to achieve, the empirical data shows that back-end AVR policies increase registration more than front-end policies. For example, a study in 2021 comparing both front-end and back-end AVR policies showed that the latter increased registration by 8.1 percent, as opposed to the former, which increased registration by only 2.9 percent.
The Automatic Voter Registration Expansion Amendment Act introduced in D.C. is a part of a greater effort to introduce voter-friendly legislation, making voting and registration more accessible for constituents in D.C. Most recently, this proposal had a public hearing on September 16, 2022.