On Tuesday, Connecticut became the fifth state in the nation to approve a system where residents are automatically registered to vote every time they visit a Department of Motor Vehicles, following the lead of Oregon, California, West Virginia, and Vermont. The state is the first, however, to implement the policy administratively rather than passing a bill through the legislature.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill told ThinkProgress that an estimated 400,000 eligible voters will be added to the rolls.
“It shouldn’t be a big effort on anyone’s part to register to vote,” she said. “And once people take that first affirmative step of registering, it’s like their first act of citizenship. It makes them really go seek out info about elections and makes them much more likely to vote.”
The Secretary of State’s office and the Connecticut DMV hammered out a memorandum of understanding over the past few months to share data in order to register voters. While the automatic system is still in the works over the next two years, the Connecticut DMV will reach out more aggressively to voters and give them the option to register at all DMV offices, by mail, or on the DMV’s mobile app.
The majority of the automatically registered voters in Oregon are excluded from the state’s closed primary because they were designated as “unaffiliated” and did not take the extra step of mailing in a form to choose a party. Connecticut will avoid this problem by having the DMV collect data on party affiliation during the automatic registration process.
“The only limitation is that this only works for people with a drivers license or state ID,” Merrill said. “So there is still is group of people we’re not going to reach. Personally, I think that once you turn 18 and you’re a citizen you should automatically be a voter. But about 70 percent of population has some sort of license or ID from the DMV, so this moves us one step closer to covering everybody.”
The new automatic system may help the state shake off a lawsuit the Justice Department authorized in April over the state’s “widespread noncompliance” with federal laws regarding voter registration. An investigation found that Connecticut DMVs were largely failing to offer voters a chance to register when they applied for driver’s licenses or updated their addresses. Many offices were only offering this option if residents specifically requested it, though they are required by law to offer it to everyone.
Though the state began working on the automatic registration plan before the lawsuit was filed, Merrill told ThinkProgress: “We’re hoping it makes a difference and [the Justice Department] can see we’re making real progress.”
President Obama won Connecticut by fewer than 300,000 votes in 2012. If the state meets its goal in adding 400,000 new voters to the rolls over the next few years, those voters could easily sway a future election.