Subtle change may have undermined Georgia automatic voter registration

Kenisha Fray hands out Pledge To Be A Voter cards during a drive-thru food giveaway at The Home Depot Backyard Saturday, September 26, 2020. Event volunteers helped provide food and groceries to an estimated 2,500 attendees and prepared them to cast their ballots in November. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Kenisha Fray hands out Pledge To Be A Voter cards during a drive-thru food giveaway at The Home Depot Backyard Saturday, September 26, 2020. Event volunteers helped provide food and groceries to an estimated 2,500 attendees and prepared them to cast their ballots in November. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Redesigned website required voters to choose whether to register

A dramatic drop in automatic voter registrations in Georgia may be caused by a government website that required potential voters to click a button before they could sign up.

That’s not how automatic voter registration is supposed to work. The intent of the program is to register voters at driver’s license offices by default, with an option not to register.

The change to automatic registration could explain a sharp decline in the rate of Georgians who opted to register through the Department of Driver Services, from 79% in 2020 to 39% last year, according to government records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The reason for the decrease wasn’t known until pictures of the department’s website surfaced in response to the AJC’s reporting Monday, showing that it had altered its online voter registration form last year.

Before January 2021, drivers had to check a box if they wanted to decline to register or update their voting information. The website changed last year so that voters were required to click “Yes” or “No” when asked whether they wanted to register. Drivers received an error message if they didn’t select either option.

“It’s really not true automatic voter registration,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney focused on voting rights for the Brennan Center for Justice. “This seems like a good example of the importance of automatic voter registration in its proper form. Automatic registration takes some of the stumbling blocks out of the way of voters to help them participate.”

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The Georgia Department of Driver Services in 2021 required drivers to choose "Yes" or "No" before they could register to vote. Under automatic voter registration, eligible voters are supposed to be signed up by default unless they opt out.

Credit: File

The Georgia Department of Driver Services in 2021 required drivers to choose "Yes" or "No" before they could register to vote. Under automatic voter registration, eligible voters are supposed to be signed up by default unless they opt out.

Credit: File

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The Georgia Department of Driver Services in 2021 required drivers to choose "Yes" or "No" before they could register to vote. Under automatic voter registration, eligible voters are supposed to be signed up by default unless they opt out.

Credit: File

Credit: File

The Department of Driver Services recently changed the website again so applicants can toggle a button to opt out of registration. Data isn’t yet available to show the effect of the change.

Georgia is one of 22 states with automatic voter registration, which signs up voters at driver’s license offices unless they opt out.

Since Georgia began automatic registration in fall 2016, its voter rolls grew by more than 1 million to a total of 7.7 million today. The program also verifies voters’ information, matches it to a photo ID and updates addresses.

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Until 2021, Georgia's automatic voter registration program signed people up to vote unless they checked a box to opt out of the program. The Department of Driver Services changed its website in January of last year, and a sharp decline in registrations followed.

Credit: File

Until 2021, Georgia's automatic voter registration program signed people up to vote unless they checked a box to opt out of the program. The Department of Driver Services changed its website in January of last year, and a sharp decline in registrations followed.

Credit: File

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Until 2021, Georgia's automatic voter registration program signed people up to vote unless they checked a box to opt out of the program. The Department of Driver Services changed its website in January of last year, and a sharp decline in registrations followed.

Credit: File

Credit: File

The DDS said Tuesday that it’s up to customers to decide whether they want to register to vote.

“They make the choice. The question is still the same, and if that person wants to make a choice, that is their choice to make,” said Shevondah Leslie, an agency spokeswoman. “We cannot say that changes to the website made a difference,”

The sudden reduction in voter registrations coincided with the timing of the launch of the voter registration page, along with the department’s shift to a new computer licensing system called Georgia DRIVES in January 2021.

Leslie said she couldn’t address questions about whether the department will review the design or usability of its voter registration webpage.

One million fewer people participated in automatic voter registration last year, though many of them are likely already registered, according to the department’s data. About 95% of eligible Georgia voters were registered in 2020, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Still, thousands of voters become eligible every year when they turn 18, and Georgia is a rapidly growing state, bringing in new residents and potential voters. Georgia’s population grew 10% over the past decade to 10.7 million.

A new voter who moved from Florida last year, Jackie Harder, said she tried to register to vote when she got her Georgia driver’s license but later received a notice in the mail saying she wasn’t registered.

Harder, a career consultant who lives in Blackshear, said the rapid decrease in automatic registrations should have made it obvious something was wrong.

“This is such a significant drop. I don’t know why that didn’t raise all kinds of red flags,” said Harder, who later registered by submitting a paper form. “If people are being disenfranchised, whether due to human or technological errors, that is a big problem.”

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

Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services

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

Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services

Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services

In response to questions about automatic registration, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called it “a false political narrative.”

“It remains easy to register, easy to vote, and hard to cheat in Georgia,” Raffensperger said in a statement Tuesday.

The New Georgia Project, a voter registration organization, called on Raffensperger and the Department of Driver Services to automatically register voters, extend the voter registration deadline and contact affected voters.

“The Department of Driver Services and secretary of state should leverage every resource necessary to automatically register eligible Georgians,” said Aklima Khondoker, chief legal officer for the New Georgia Project.

All states are required to offer voter registration opportunities at driver’s license offices under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the motor-voter law. States with automatic registration go a step further by signing up all drivers unless they opt out of the program.

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.

The current version of the driver’s license website, rolled out a few weeks ago, restored voter registration as the default option, but it’s not yet known whether it will restore automatic registration rates. The option to “opt out” of being registered is more prominently displayed on the current site than it was in 2020 and prior years.


The story so far

What happened: Automatic voter registrations plunged last year, with less than half as many registration applications submitted.

The latest: The decline appears to have been caused by a redesigned voter registration website from the Department of Driver Services.

What’s next: Before Georgia’s registration deadline on Monday, voters can check their registration information online at mvp.sos.ga.gov.