Did Georgia weaken automatic voter registration?

Abrupt drop in voter registrations questioned
Half as many Georgians opted to register at driver’s license offices last year compared with 2020, a drop from 79% to 39%. The sharp decrease indicates that automatic voter registration is no longer working as it had in the past. AJC FILE

Half as many Georgians opted to register at driver’s license offices last year compared with 2020, a drop from 79% to 39%. The sharp decrease indicates that automatic voter registration is no longer working as it had in the past. AJC FILE

Until last year, the vast majority of people who visited Georgia driver’s license offices automatically registered to vote at the same time.

Not anymore.

Voter registrations submitted through the Georgia Department of Driver Services have plummeted since January 2021, according to government records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The sharp decrease indicates that automatic voter registration is no longer working as it had in the past. Half as many drivers opted to register at driver’s license offices last year compared with 2020, a drop from 79% to 39%.

The decline coincided with the installation of a new computer system at driver’s license offices, though government officials deny any problems with their technology or changes in how voter registrations are handled. A department spokeswoman said drivers simply chose not to register.

The official explanation doesn’t make sense to county election officials and voting rights advocates such as Saira Draper, who has been investigating the downturn in automatic registration since last fall.

“We have a situation here where thousands of people, through no fault of their own, potentially are not registered but think that they are,” said Draper, who handled voting issues for the Democratic Party of Georgia before deciding to run for the state House of Representatives. “It’s an extraordinarily alarming situation, and no one’s doing anything about it.”

If the automatic registration system is flawed, voters would suffer the consequences in this year’s elections when early voting for the primary begins May 2.

Georgians who believed they were registered to vote — but later learned they weren’t — wouldn’t be able to participate in the election. And voters who have moved might not have accurate districts or voting locations listed, forcing them to cast a ballot at their previous polling places.

“It’s clear that something very different is happening,” said Cathy Woolard, chairwoman for the Fulton County elections board. “It’s a mystery that needs to be solved. Something fundamental to what was going on over there has changed.”

Georgia is one of 22 states with automatic voter registration, which signs up voters at driver’s license offices unless they opt out of the program. Automatic registration increased both election access and security, verifying voters’ information and matching it to a photo ID before they’re registered.

Since Georgia began automatic registration in fall 2016, its voter rolls grew by more than 1 million to a total of 7.7 million voters today.

After an average of 150,000 people per month participated in automatic registration from 2016 to 2020, about 63,000 have opted into the program each month since then. That amounts to 1 million fewer registrations submitted per year.

The Department of Driver Services contends that the recent decrease in voter registrations reflects a shift in human behavior — not a computer error or policy change.

“The choice to opt out has always been an option. The period of 2021 was just after a very contentious election,” spokeswoman Shevondah Leslie said. “The rates are customer-driven.”

The Georgia driver's license application form includes a section that registers people to vote unless they opt out.

Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services

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Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services

Though most eligible Georgians are already registered to vote, that doesn’t explain why so many more people would suddenly decide to click on the option to opt out of the program.

Monthly voter registration applications through the department have remained low in the 15 months since they first dropped off in January 2021, reaching a nadir of 27% last month, according to Department of Driver Services records.

A department spokeswoman said Commissioner Spencer Moore was unavailable to speak to the AJC after a public board meeting in Conyers last week.

As a result of lower registration applications submitted by the department, the number of new voters ultimately registered by election officials also declined.

The AJC reported last month that 48% fewer new voters were registered from the automatic voter registration program in 2021 compared with the prior year. At the time, election experts and officials attributed the decrease to the program’s prior success in registering most eligible voters.

Georgia’s registration rate of eligible voters grew from 76% in 2016 to 95% four years later, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The idea that Georgians abruptly decided to opt out of automatic registration in January 2021 strains credibility, said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director for voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“It’s hard to believe that voter behavior has changed so dramatically,” Morales-Doyle said. “It will likely lead to a decrease in the number of people who are registered to vote, but it also will mean that there’s less accuracy in Georgia’s voter rolls.”

Georgia Muslim Voter Project Community Organizer Salik Sohani, left, speaks with Ben Coulibaly about voter registration following prayer outside of the Al-Farooq Masjid in downtown Atlanta in August 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The dip in automatic registration rates matches the timing of the Department of Driver Services’ implementation of a computer system called Georgia DRIVES, which replaced the state’s old licensing technology and launched in January 2021.

According to the department, there’s no reason to believe that the change in opt-in rates is related to Georgia DRIVES, and a review of transactions didn’t find any issues.

“This is just the most recent effort to lay the groundwork to claim stolen elections when candidates lose,” said Ari Schaffer, a spokesman for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “As federal courts have repeatedly established, Georgia has numerous simple and easy ways for Georgians to register to vote.”

Unless the secretary of state’s office intervenes, it’s unclear whether the drop in automatic registration rates will be investigated and explained.

The U.S. Department of Justice is responsible for enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires voter registration opportunities at driver’s license offices across the country.

Georgia implemented automatic voter registration administratively, without changing state law, in September 2016 to ensure compliance with the NVRA. The program began under Republican officials including Gov. Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state at the time, and then-Attorney General Sam Olens.

“There is an accountability problem. We need someone to dig in and fix the problem, ideally in the next two weeks before the registration deadline” on April 25 ahead of the May 24 primary, Draper said.

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used the Georgia Open Records Act to request voter registration data from the Department of Driver Services, figures that showed a sharp decline last year in the number and rate of people who sought to register to vote through the department. The department later provided more detailed records of registrations as a percentage of interactions with citizens over 17 years old.

The story so far

What happened: Less than half as many Georgians have been automatically registered to vote through the Department of Driver Services per month since January 2021.

The latest: The department denies any changes to automatic voter registration but can’t explain why tens of thousands of people each month would suddenly decide not to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

What’s next: Voters who want to participate in Georgia’s primary must ensure their registration information is accurate by the state’s April 25 registration deadline. Voters can verify their registrations online at mvp.sos.ga.gov.