This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As the special election for the 3rd Congressional District approaches, Utahns have until Aug. 8 to register to vote in-person or online. But, in the future, Utah can find a better and more modern way to register voters through Automatic Voter Registration (AVR). The reform allows any eligible citizen who interacts with the Division of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies to automatically be registered, unless they decline.
Here's how automatic voter registration works: Instead of having to affirmatively sign up to vote, eligible citizens would be automatically and securely added to the rolls when obtaining or renewing a driver's license, or when interacting with government agencies. They can choose to opt out but they must make an active choice not to register. States that do not have AVR have an opt-in system, where it's up to citizens to register if they want to be able to vote. Automatic registration shifts the burden away from the voter you will be registered to vote if you are eligible, unless you decline.
This change creates a seamless process that is more convenient and less error-prone for voters and government officials.
The bi-partisan support for this election reform is growing across the country. The Illinois Legislature unanimously passed AVR and the state's Republican governor is expected to sign it. Earlier this month, Rhode Island became the ninth state to enact AVR.
Utah showed the same bi-partisan approach this last legislative session. The House of Representatives passed a bill that would bring AVR to the state, but the proposal died the last day of session in the Senate.
The key sponsor of the bill, Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, promoted it as policy that would bring government efficiency at a low price. He's right. In fact, the DMV fiscal note estimated a one-time $17,000 implementation cost.
During a hearing on the bill, Ricky Hatch, the Republican Weber County Clerk and chair of the Utah Clerks' Legislative Policy Committee, said the bill "streamlines the process not just for election officials but for the Driver's License Division as well," and noted the problem of individuals including Mitt Romney who mean to check the box but forget to under the current opt-in system.
Moreover, AVR makes voter rolls more accurate and current, which makes systems easier to maintain and helps preserve the integrity of the ballot. This happens for two reasons. First, paperless systems leave less room for human error from bad handwriting, mishandling paper forms, or manual data entry. Second, because voters are sending more real-time information to the registration system, outdated or duplicated records can be reconciled.
We know that historically Utah has a very low voter turnout rate. Additionally, and perhaps relatedly, Utah has between 455,000 and 500,000 eligible, but unregistered voters. AVR increases the registration rate because it puts the burden of registering voters on officials.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law reports that the experiences in the states over the last decade demonstrate that modernizing registration increases the voter registration rates and turnout. In 2016, Oregon became the first state to begin AVR implementation and has seen registration rates quadruple at DMV offices.
AVR offers a common sense, nonpartisan opportunity to increase participation and protect election integrity. Everyone can agree on the benefits of saving money and reducing error.
With groundwork being done now, in 2018, Utah can take advantage of the growing momentum for reform and get elections to work for the 21st century. The end-game is an accurate and secure system that is easier to administer and we gain greater participation in our democracy as the bonus.
State Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, represents District 16 in the Utah House. Marina Lowe is legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah.