Flipping the switch on Automatic Voter Registration
Social media anymore is so filled with misinformation that sometimes my tolerance for nonsense breaks. I’m at that point now with the falsehoods being spread by lawmakers, activists, and even some media in regards to Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR for short.
First, the usual disclaimer: I’m a former press secretary for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. But I’m not here to take Mac Warner’s side over Natalie Tennant’s side, who apparently is running to get her old seat back from Warner. I’m simply here to talk about AVR, why it’s been delayed multiple times by the West Virginia Legislature and why it needs to work.
I’ve written about AVR before, but if you’re unsure what that means, let me explain. Currently, if you want to register to vote, you can either go to your county clerk’s office, go online to the Secretary of State’s Office, fill out a form at a voter registration drive or checkmark a box at the Division of Motor Vehicles saying you want to register to vote.
This last option is usually referred to as Motor Voter. It spun out of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and West Virginia quickly followed suit.
Despite what some would have you believe, the Secretary of State’s Office has very little involvement in this process. When you check the box at the DMV to register to vote or update registration, the Secretary of State’s Office acts as a pass-through. They make sure your registration information gets to the right county clerk. But county clerks are in charge of putting names on the voter rolls or taking them off, NOT the Secretary of State’s Office.
I’ll say that again for those in the back of the room: the Secretary of State’s Office is not in charge of adding or removing names from voter rolls, the county clerk is. All the Secretary of State’s Office does is maintain the statewide voter registration system, which only county clerks can add to or take away from. It also acts as the pass-through between the DMV and county clerks.
But in 2016, a new way of doing Motor Voter was proposed as a deal to allow Voter ID in West Virginia: Automatic Voter Registration. Instead of being asked at the DMV if you want to register to vote, you’re automatically registered to vote unless you check a box to opt-out.
Sounds nice and easy. Who wouldn’t want to be registered to vote? Well, the U.S. Census estimates there are 1.5 million adults age 18 or older in West Virginia. As of August, there are more than 1.2 million registered voters in the state, so there are at least 17 percent of the state’s adult population who don’t want to be registered to vote. That’s certainly their right.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, where Tennant works, 16 states and Washington, D.C., have AVR — approximately 32 percent of the country. It also requires electronic transfer of the voter registration info from the DMV.
“These common-sense reforms increase registration rates, clean up the voter rolls, and save states,” a Brennan analysis stated. While technically true that it increases registration rates, it’s not because people are choosing to register and its likely people doing a simple drivers’ license renewal won’t even know they’re being registered.
For many county clerks, they’re unhappy with AVR since it is dumping voter registration files on county clerks for people who may never vote. Right now, county clerks do a diligent job of maintaining voter rolls, removing the deceased, convicted felons, and people who have moved and not updated the county clerk. County election officials are also allowed by federal law to remove names of people who have not shown any voting activity through two federal election cycles.
With AVR, the county clerk’s job just got harder, but thanks to the West Virginia Legislature allowing the Secretary of State to spend $1.5 million for improvements to the statewide voter registration system, it should help make the influx of voter registration files, particularly for counties with larger populations, easier to deal with.
That won’t help counties when it comes to printing provisional ballots at election time, which will cause an increased cost for cash-strapped counties having to make sure paper ballots are on hand for voters who likely won’t vote. That also won’t help candidates, who also now have to spend more money on voter lists and mailings (though maybe this will scare off candidates from sending mailers. Those things are annoying).
As for the electronic transfer of voter registration files from the DMV, that has been the other issue. The DMV has only just in the last year started upgrading their ancient computer systems, servers, and software to properly handle AVR. According to the Beckley Register-Herald, the DMV has lost people’s voter registration information due to system errors, a problem discovered during the 2018 elections.
The DMV also couldn’t keep their stories straight on whether they were ready for AVR. Adam Holley, general counsel for the DMV, told lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session that they were ready to go. On the other side of the building, DMV deputy commissioner Linda Ellis was warning lawmakers about the computer systems not being ready to handle AVR. Holley, who is now the acting DMV secretary told lawmakers this week that the DMV is ready. Is it?
AVR has been delayed two times since 2016. Right now, it’s set to become official July 1, 2021. A small group of loud people have been yelling on social media this past week blaming Warner for the delay, all because he put out a document detailing the many issues other states have had implementing AVR.
Perhaps the loud voices should stop trying to run interference against Warner’s re-election and work with the agencies to ensure that when we flip the AVR switch, it will work.
(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)