Truths About Automatic Voter Registration


If New York wants to be a progressive model for the country, its voting laws should reflect that reality. That’s why it’s time to pass automatic voter registration, a reform that dramatically increases the comprehensiveness and accuracy of voter rolls. Automatic voter registration has been implemented across the country with bipartisan majorities in states like Alaska (through a ballot initiative), Maryland, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  

What Is Automatic Voter Registration

Automatic voter registration is a simple idea. Rather than putting the burden of voter registration on individuals, the state should do it when individuals interact with state agencies, while at the same time giving individuals the opportunity to opt out. This allows the state to create clean, reliable and secure voter rolls and also expands access to the ballot. When individuals interact with public agencies, referred to as a source agency, (such as a DMV or Department of Health) the state has much if not all the relevant information to add them to the voter rolls or update their address.  

There are two ways to implement automatic voter registration: back-end and front-end. In a back-end system, like Oregon’s, the state checks to ensure the individual is eligible, sends them a letter indicating they will be registered unless they opt-out and, if the individual doesn’t opt-out, the state adds them to the rolls. In a front-end system, like California, users opt-out while interacting with the agency. Many experts prefer the back-end system because it is less prone to errors while leading to significantly more people being registered.

Policy Recommendation

Based on an extensive analysis of the political circumstances in New York, administrative capacity and optimal results, the recommendation of AVR Now is for New York to adopt back-end automatic voter registration with multiple source agencies through the legislature. Possible source agencies include the Department of Health, public universities, public housing and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Read a memo from election lawyer Henry Berger explaining why he thinks back-end is best for New York.

Read a letter from AVR NOW, Center for Popular Democracy, Common Cause, Make The Road, Working Families Party and Indivisible on why we demand back-end AVR.

A Tale of Two States

In 2016, Oregon passed the first ever back-end opt-out automatic voter registration system. In the first years, this system added more than 160,000 people to the rolls. A full 94 percent of individuals who interacted with DMV and who were eligible to vote were registered.  And 44 percent of the new registrants subsequently voted, leading Oregon to have the largest turnout increases between 2012 and 2016 of any state.  

Compare those results to the front-end opt-out system that was implemented in California in 2018. According to the latest data, a full 40 percent of individuals who are eligible to vote leave the DMV without being registered.   

The reason is simple -- if you’re asked to answer additional questions at a government agency like a DMV about registering to vote, you’re more likely to just skip it. 


Why We Need Expanded Source Agencies

Most automatic voter registration systems use the department of motor vehicles as the major source agency. That makes sense - according to Census Bureau data, 33 percent of registered people report registering at the DMV. But DMVs are not the only eligible source agencies. Healthcare exchanges, Medicaid offices and public universities could be source agencies. Some states have unique agencies, such as Alasksa’s Permanent Fund Dividend program, which serves as that state’s  source agency.

As agencies build the capacity for automatic voter registration, the law should expand to include them. The reason is simple: Many people don’t interact with the DMV, and these are disproportionately the people who are most likely to be underrepresented in the electorate. States like Rhode Island and New Jersey have made a commitment to expand AVR to new source agencies as agencies build up the technical capacities for doing so.

What About Party Registration?

From our analysis of other AVR states (Oregon and Colorado, see chart) the overall number of people who register in a political party under a front-end and back-end system is very close.  The difference is that under a back-end system, there are also a large number of new registrants who do not join a political party.  This means that under front-end, a greater percentage of people who are registered register in a political party, but that’s because denominator is a lot smaller in a front-end system than in a back-end system.

The voters joining the rolls as unaffiliated in a back-end system are disproportionately the individuals who remain off the rolls in a front-end system. These voters are the same voters who are disproportionately young, people of color, and low-income. They are individuals who are disconnected from the political system and do not identify with political parties. But adding these individuals to the rolls allows candidates and political parties to engage them.  


How Do States Get AVR?

The path to AVR varies by state. In states like Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and New Jersey, AVR has passed through the legislature and been signed by the Governor. In other states, like Alaska, AVR has passed through ballot initiative. In some states, like Colorado, Connecticut and Georgia, the government has implemented a partial AVR through an administrative process.

Call your State Senator, State Assembly Member and GOvernor Cuomo AND ask them to support Back-End AVR With Multiple Source Agencies


Before you call or visit any state representative, check out this Indivisible Guide.

Use the Senate’s online portal to express your support for S1278.

Governor Cuomo

  1. Call Cuomo: 518-474-8390

  2. Tweet Gov. Cuomo any time: @NYGovCuomo  

  3. E-mail Cuomo: 

State Senators

  1. Look up your NY State Senator here.

  2. Once you have identified your State Senator, click on his or her profile here. Click on “Contact” in the upper right corner.

  3. Call his or her Albany office and/or visit one of the offices in person.

State Assembly Members

  1. Look up your NY State Assembly Member here.

  2. Once you have identified your State Assembly Member, click on his or her profile here. Find contact information in the left-hand column.

  3. Call his or her Albany office and/or visit one of the offices in person.  

Learn MOre

Read a memo from election lawyer Henry Berger explaining why he thinks back-end is best for New York.

Read a letter from AVR NOW, Center for Popular Democracy, Common Cause, Make The Road, Working Families Party and Indivisible on why we demand back-end AVR.

Read a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo from AVR NOW, 1199 SEIU, 32BJSEIU, AVR NOW, Center for Popular Democracy, Common Cause New York, Empire State Indivisible, Indivisible Harlem, Make the Road New York, Stand Up America and Working Families Party.