Automatic voter registration rebounds in Georgia after error corrected

People fill out their paperwork at the Metropolitan Library in Atlanta on the last Saturday of early voting, May 14, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
People fill out their paperwork at the Metropolitan Library in Atlanta on the last Saturday of early voting, May 14, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Change to registration website had reduced voter applications

The state’s automatic voter registration system was broken in Georgia for 15 months. A minor change to a registration website fixed it instantly.

Voter registrations skyrocketed last month after the Georgia Department of Driver Services resumed signing up eligible voters by default unless they opted out.

Data provided by the department shows that 72% of citizens submitted voter registration information in April, up from 27% in March. In raw numbers, that amounts to 106,000 registration applications in April, compared with 46,000 in March.

Automatic registration had been turned off since January 2021, when the Department of Driver Services redesigned its registration website as part of a broader technology upgrade. Instead of registering drivers by default, the website required drivers to click “Yes” or “No” when asked whether they wanted to sign up.

The department changed the website again in March to replace the “Yes” or “No” format with an “opt-out” button for those who don’t want to register. Now, all eligible Georgians become active voters just by pushing “Next” on the online form when applying for or renewing a driver’s license, unless they click the “opt-out” button.

The website redesign followed reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about declines in voter registrations. The Department of Driver Services changed its website after it was contacted by the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, a nonprofit organization that advocates for automatic voter registration.

“We have always been responsive when matters are brought to our attention,” said Susan Sports, a spokeswoman for the Department of Driver Services. “We immediately took action. The rates of opt-out clearly reduced after the presentation changes were made.”

Georgia’s automatic voter registration program had earned praise for growing the state’s voter rolls from 6.6 million in 2016 to 7.7 million today. Georgia is one of 22 states with automatic registration through driver’s license offices.

Automatic registration increased both election access and security, verifying voters’ information and matching it to a photo ID before they’re registered.

Besides enrolling new voters, automatic registration also affects existing voters by ensuring their addresses are accurate. State law requires voters to change their registered addresses after they move and to cast ballots in their home districts.

“They might think, ‘Well, I already am registered and I don’t need to do this,’ or they’re not thinking about the election cycle,” said Whitney Quesenbery, executive director for the Center for Civic Design, which focuses on clear and effective election materials. “The design of the form shouldn’t be the thing that makes the difference. It should be people having a clear understanding of what they’re doing.”

The Department of Driver Services has said it didn’t intend to weaken automatic voter registration last year when it redesigned the registration webpage, one of a series of forms that drivers must fill out to get a license.

ajc.com

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

When automatic voter registration was in place, there were over 350,000 address changes and 289,000 new voters registered each year, according to state election records. Those numbers plunged to 175,000 address changes and 149,000 new voters through driver’s license offices in 2021.

Esosa Osa, deputy executive director for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group, said the secretary of state’s office should contact voters whose information wasn’t updated last year so they know they might need to re-register.

“We absolutely continue to have concerns over what efforts the secretary of state will take to ensure that voters that may have missed an opportunity to register or update their address not only get that opportunity, but also don’t have any issues at the polls,” Osa said. “Voting should be easy, and we should make every effort to remove undue burdens to that process.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger doesn’t plan to contact voters impacted by Georgia’s elimination of automatic registration from January 2021 to March 2022. Over 2 million eligible Georgia voters interact with the Department of Driver Services each year.

Georgia implemented automatic voter registration in September 2016 under the administrations of Republican officials including Gov. Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state at the time, and then-Attorney General Sam Olens.

However, Raffensperger, a Republican running for reelection this year, recently said he supports legislation to end automatic voter registration.

“People should be asked the question to have a choice: ‘Would you like to be registered or would you not?’ And then we would respond ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” Raffensperger said during a recent debate. “That would be the update that we should have, and the General Assembly should pass that.”

About 95% of Georgia’s eligible population is already registered to vote, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

If automatic registration were eliminated, supporters say, fewer new voters and new Georgia residents would be signed up to vote, and address information for existing voters would become less accurate over time.


Election day is Tuesday

Before voters go to the polls, they can check their registration information, polling places and sample ballots on the state’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov. Polls are open statewide from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.