Poll manager Melvin Davis Jr. directed traffic as the lines grew and the wait increased to over an hour to vote in November at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Automatic registration leads to surge of new Georgia voters

With little fanfare, Georgia started automatically signing up voters in droves three years ago when they got their driver’s licenses.

That quiet change made a loud impact: more than 681,000 newly registered voters, pushing the state’s total number of voters to a record high of 7 million.

Amid heated battles over voting rights, Georgia has emerged as an unlikely national leader in automatic voter registration, according to a study this month by the Brennan Center for Justice. The study estimated that 94% more voters registered in Georgia than if the state hadn’t implemented automatic voter registration in September 2016.

More than any voter registration drive or contentious political campaign, Georgians signed up to vote because the state government made it the default option on every driver’s license form. Everyone is registered unless they check a box to opt out of being registered to vote. Before the switch, voters had to opt in.

“Registering to vote in Georgia has never been easier,” state Elections Director Chris Harvey said.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, frequently accused by his critics of making it harder to vote when he was secretary of state, declined to comment.

A group suing over voting problems in Georgia said the rising number of registered voters doesn’t erase the state’s issues.

Voters faced barriers when Kemp’s office canceled the registrations of more than 500,000 people in July 2017, held up registrations of those with hyphenated or unusual names, incorrectly flagged voters as noncitizens and failed to prevent long lines in November’s election, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the CEO of Fair Fight Action, a group backed by Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp.

“All of these problems combine to form the unconstitutional system of suppression Georgians face today,” said Groh-Wargo, who was Abrams’ campaign manager.

Georgia is one of 15 states to implement automatic voter registration since it began five years ago, according to the study by the Brennan Center, a policy institute at New York University.

Unlike most states, Georgia began automatic voter registration without a state law approved by the General Assembly. Colorado is the only other state that launched automatic voter registration this way.

Instead, officials with the Department of Driver Services, the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office implemented automatic voter registration administratively through the driver’s license application form. The change was made to ensure compliance with the National Voter Rights Act of 1993, which requires state governments to offer voter registration opportunities when residents apply for or renew a driver’s license, said Susan Sports, a spokeswoman for the DDS.

That decision by Kemp and other Republican elected officials likely benefited Democrats, said Dan Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University.

“New voters will on balance be lower-income, and they’re probably more likely to identify with the Democratic Party,” Franklin said. “For all the criticism Kemp has been getting, he might like to see this story.”

Without automatic voter registration, Georgia would have registered 6,279 voters weekly in 2017, according to the Brennan Center study, which compared areas in Georgia with demographically similar jurisdictions in states that don’t have automatic registration. In reality, Georgia registered an average of 12,160 voters a week.

Voter registration figures support the study’s findings.

About 80,000 new voters registered through the Department of Driver Services in 2015, when they had to check a box to be registered. After automatic voter registration began in fall 2016, that number jumped to 352,000 in 2017 and 329,000 in 2018.

Some of the increase in automatic voter registrations may have been among voters whose registrations were canceled under Kemp, said Kevin Morris, a co-author of the Brennan Center study. More than 1.4 million people were removed from Georgia’s voting rolls between 2012 and 2018 because they stopped participating in elections, died, moved away or were convicted of felonies.

“Brian Kemp has purged a lot of people, and there are more unregistered people showing up at the department of motor vehicles,” Morris said. “It’s exciting that Georgia is taking a step in this direction and making it easier for people to get back on the rolls or on the rolls for the first time.”

Georgians waiting in line for driver’s licenses in downtown Atlanta last week said they support the government’s efforts to enroll more voters.

“It’s a good idea to get whoever we can to vote,” said D.J. Chewy of Atlanta, who works in home repair. “We haven’t had a good president since Clinton.”

Lakesha Williams, an Atlanta customer service business owner, said it’s important to have more opportunities to register and vote.

“I wish they did it in more places,” she said. “How can you be a part of the change if you don’t vote?”

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