By Hope Karnopp
As states pass restrictive voting laws in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, Wisconsin’s divided government faces two policy proposals: either to tighten restrictions on absentee voting and ID requirements, or to implement automatic voter registration (AVR). State policymakers who wish to decrease administrative burden and pursue equitable voter turnout should consider implementing AVR. Initial evidence suggests that AVR increases turnout, comes at a low cost, and could gain bipartisan support. However, Wisconsin should plan AVR implementation carefully by providing sufficient resources and directives to state agencies.
Record numbers of Wisconsinites voted absentee by-mail in the April and November 2020 elections (Figure 1). From October 11 to November 5, the state’s “Register to Vote” page on myvote.wi.gov had over one million unique visits, indicating that many people used the state’s online system to register. However, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) said in January that the “massive increase in by-mail absentee voting this year revealed public confusion about the process and differing opinions about previously obscure statutory provisions and administrative procedures” (“WEC Releases Analysis”). A WEC report also noted that telephone calls and email volume for staff hit “record heights in 2020” and some election officials worked more than 50 consecutive days without a break (Wisconsin Elections Commission). This suggests that simplifying voting policies could reduce confusion for voters and ease burdens on election administration officials (Herd and Moynihan).
Figure 1: Voting Methods 2016-2020
Source: Wisconsin Elections Commission, 2021
Although data from the 2020 elections is not yet widely available, the turnout of Black voters fell about 6 percentage points between 2012 and 2016 to about 60 percent. In 2016, white voters had 65 percent turnout, Asian voters had 49 percent turnout, and Hispanic voters had 48 percent turnout (Figure 2).Additionally, Wisconsin’s electorate has become more diverse, with Black and Hispanic voters gaining at least a 1 percent share of the state’s eligible voters between 2010 and 2018 (Igielnik and Budiman). Restrictive voting policies recently passed in Georgia are expected to have a significant negative impact on Black voters, which could deepen disparities in turnout for future election cycles (Fausset).
Figure 2: Black Voter Turnout
Source: Pew Research Center, 2017
Implementing AVR has the potential to reduce burdens on voters and achieve equitable turnout. Preliminary studies found that AVR led to about a 2 percentage point increase in registration, and registration increased especially in Latinx communities (McGhee and Romero). Additionally, research shows that recently implemented AVR policies had a small, positive effect on turnout (Gujar). AVR also comes at a relatively low cost to states. In New York, which uses AVR in multiple state agencies, the cost of implementation was estimated to be $1.9 million in the first year, while the cost to register all voters in the 2018 elections without AVR was about $3.2 million (Roldan). In Nevada, the policy came with reasonable costs, including $53,000 for a one-year supply of updated forms in all required languages and a new database costing about $4.8 million (Fiscal Analysis Division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau). The budget proposal in Wisconsin would allocate about $156,000 for the WEC and Department of Transportation to begin transferring voters’ information, but it is unclear what other costs would be associated with the project and on what timeline (Division of Executive Budget and Finance Department of Administration). Public opinion of AVR remains somewhat polarized, with 78 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans in favor as of 2018 (Bialik). A 2016 Gallup poll found close to two-thirds of Americans overall favor AVR, and support is especially strong among nonwhite voters (McCarthy). Additionally, both Republican and Democratic states have enacted AVR (Merivaki). Wisconsin’s divided government may agree on implementing AVR as a cost-effective and equitable measure.
If Wisconsin is to move forward with AVR, it should learn from California’s implementation mistakes. The Los Angeles Times reported on audits that revealed a limited amount of program testing, inconsistent communication across state agencies, over 80,000 duplicate voter registrations, and other errors related to political party preferences, which Wisconsin does not record. Government leaders maintained that the audit showed no factual errors and that there was no impact on voter eligibility (Myers). If Wisconsin is to begin implementing AVR, agencies should be provided with sufficient funding and specific directives to avoid worsening government inefficiency. Finally, it may be worthwhile to take the proposal one step further in Wisconsin by automatically registering voters during any interaction with a state government agency. While most states only include the DMV as a participating agency, some also include social services agencies or others approved by the secretary of state or the governor (“Same Day Voter Registration”). This could increase registration among harder to reach populations, including low-income and elderly people, and ensure more equitable access to registration.
Bialik, Kristen. “How Americans View Some of the Voting Policies Approved at the Ballot Box.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 15 Nov. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/11/15/how-americans-view-some-of-the-voting-policies-approved-at-the-ballot-box/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Division of Executive Budget and Finance Department of Administration. Executive Budget. 2021. https://doa.wi.gov/budget/SBO/2021-23%20Executive%20Budget%20Complete%20Document. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Fausset, Richard, et al. “Why the Georgia G.O.P.’s Voting Rollbacks will Hit Black People Hard.” The New York Times, 25 March 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/25/us/politics/georgia-black-voters.html.
Fiscal Analysis Division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau. Financial Impact of the Automatic Voter Registration Initiative. 2017. https://www.nvsos.gov/sos/home/showdocument?id=4715. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Gujar, Ketaki. Zooming Past Motor-Voter: An Analysis of How Automatic Voter Registration Policies Impact Voter Turnout in the United States. 2020. University of Pennsylvania. College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, https://repository.upenn.edu/curej/243.
Herd, Pamela, and Donald P. Moynihan. Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means. Russell Sage Foundation, 2018.
Igielnik, Ruth, and Abby Budiman. “The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the U.S. Electorate.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 23 Sept. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/2020/09/23/the-changing-racial-and-ethnic-composition-of-the-u-s-electorate/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Jens Manuel Krogstad, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Black Voter Turnout Fell in 2016, Even as a Record Number of Americans Cast Ballots.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 May 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/12/black-voter-turnout-fell-in-2016-even-as-a-record-number-of-americans-cast-ballots/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
McCarthy, Justin. “Four in Five Americans Support Voter ID Laws, Early Voting.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 22 Aug. 2016, news.gallup.com/poll/194741/four-five-americans-support-voter-laws-early-voting.aspx. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
McGhee, Eric, and Mindy Romero. “Registration Effect of Automatic Voter Registration in the United States.” https://cpb-us w2.wpmucdn.com/web.sas.upenn.edu/dist/7/538/files/2019/07/avr_multistate_esra.pdf. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Merivaki, Thessalia, and Daniel Smith. “Challenges in Voter Registration.” The Future of Election Administration. 2019. https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-14947-5_5. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Myers, John. “Nearly 84,000 Duplicate Voter Records Found in Audit of California’s ‘Motor Voter’ System.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug. 2019, www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-08-09/duplicate-voter-records-audit-california-motor-voter-system. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Roldan, Cyierra, et al. “Automatic Voter Registration in New York: Good for Democracy and Sound Fiscal Sense.” Fiscal Policy Institute, 2019. https://fiscalpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Costs-and-Benefits-of-AVR-in-New-York-2019-02-11.pdf.
“Same Day Voter Registration.” NCSL.org, 2020, www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/same-day-registration.aspx. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
“WEC Releases Analysis of November 2020 Election Data.” Elections.wi.gov, 29 Jan. 2021, elections.wi.gov/node/7329. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
Wisconsin Elections Commission. November 3, 2020 Election Data Report. 2021. https://elections.wi.gov/sites/elections.wi.gov/files/202101/D.%20November%202020%20Election%20Data%20Report. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.