The United States has a voter-turnout problem. For decades, participation in presidential elections has ranged from about 50 to 65 percent of eligible voters, and in midterm elections has averaged between 25 and 45 percent. Turnout in state and local elections is typically much lower, sometimes in the single digits. Voter turnout in the United States trails that of most other developed democracies.
Low voter turnout is not merely a problem of numbers. It has the effect of skewing politics and policy making toward the preferences of groups most likely to turn out to vote: whites, older Americans, the affluent, and those with more education. Conversely, people of color, low-income people, and young people are substantially underrepresented in the electoral process and in policy making. Instead of giving everyone an equal voice in the political process, our democracy gives some people voice and power, while others are shut out—including many who have historically faced, and continue to face, active suppression of their right to vote.
For this reason, activists, policy-makers, and social scientists have worked for decades to increase turnout in elections. Reforms that target registration tend to be most effective. For instance, same-day registration boosts participation and facilitates stronger class diversity among the electorate. But even then, it is a persistent challenge to maintain and expand overall participation, particularly among people who vote less consistently.
Recently, policy-makers have begun examining automatic voter registration (AVR). It has generated a lot of excitement, and rightly so. New research from Demos examines the effects of Oregon’s recent adoption of AVR on the level and composition of turnout in the 2016 federal election. Using unique individual-level data, we provide new evidence that AVR increased the racial diversity of Oregon’s electorate. Our findings suggest that AVR is effective in raising voter turnout, especially among individuals who are voting for the first time or are less-frequent voters. These patterns point to a positive relationship between AVR and increased voter participation, and demonstrates that AVR is a successful reform to reduce political inequities stemming from the historic underrepresentation of young people, people of color, and low-income people in the electorate.