Framing Automatic Voter Registration: Partisanship and Public Understanding of Automatic Voter Registration

Date01 November 2020
Published date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 693 –699
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20922525
Automatic voter registration (AVR) is the latest significant
reform to the electoral process in the United States. AVR
shifts the burden of voter registration from the eligible regis-
trant to the state government (Burden & Nieheisel, 2013).
While there are variations among states, typically AVR reg-
isters all eligible citizens who interact with government
agencies, most commonly through the state’s motor vehicles
department. The state elections office reviews the registra-
tion application, determines a potential registrant’s eligibil-
ity, and then accepts or rejects the application.
Despite AVR’s significant change to voter registration, it
has not gotten bogged down by the partisan “voting wars”
typical of the last two decades of policy debates to change
how elections are administered (Hasen, 2013). Oregon was
the first state to implement AVR in 2016, and 17 more states
and DC have adopted AVR as of June 2019 (National
Conference of State Legislatures, 2019). While more
Democratically controlled states have passed the reform,
there are states of all partisan colorations that now have AVR
(seven with divided government, two with Republican con-
trol, and 10 with Democratic control).
Public opinion shows bipartisan support for AVR, but
with partisan gaps. Roughly two thirds of the American pub-
lic supports AVR, including four in five Democrats and a
bare majority of Republicans (Bialik, 2018; Gallup, 2016;
Ingraham, 2018). Referenda to pass AVR in several states
provide additional (and legally binding) indications of public
support. However, research on public attitudes about AVR is
in its infancy. Adona and Gronke (2018) find “the public
does not currently express strong support or opposition to
AVR” (p14) suggesting that many people may not be famil-
iar with AVR and are answering based on the brief descrip-
tions provided in a survey question.
We leverage this survey result for this research. When the
public is willing to make broad judgments, but show low lev-
els of detailed information, source cues from political elites
can have a strong influence on expectations about policy out-
comes (Mondak, 1993). We developed and implemented a
survey experiment to test how source cues shape public
expectations about AVR’s impact on the voting process.
AVR as Bipartisan Reform
The promise of improving both “access” and “integrity” is a
major reason AVR avoids the partisan “voting wars.” Democrats
and liberals see potential to increase access (e.g., Griffin et al.
2017; Weiser, 2016). Republicans and conservatives see
potential to increase integrity of elections (e.g., Borchardt,
2019). Another possible explanation why AVR has not gotten
bogged down in the polarized “voting wars” debate is that it is
922525APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20922525American Politics ResearchMann et al.
1Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, USA
2Reed College, Portland, OR, USA
3Democracy Fund, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Christopher B. Mann, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga
Springs, NY 12866-1632, USA.
Framing Automatic Voter Registration:
Partisanship and Public Understanding of
Automatic Voter Registration
Part of Special Symposium on Election Sciences
Christopher B. Mann1, Paul Gronke2, and Natalie Adona3
Automatic voter registration (AVR) is a recent innovation in voter registration in the United States, passed by 18 states plus
DC in the last 4 years. AVR has generally escaped partisan polarization about election reform, having passed in Republican
and Democratic controlled states. Using a survey experiment in the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we
investigate effects of source cues about support of AVR from different party elites and from election administrators on the
public’s expectations about AVR’s impact on turnout, voter fraud, fairness, and election problems. Our experimental results
show an asymmetric partisan effect. When AVR is endorsed by Democratic leaders, Republicans (and independents) expect
AVR to reduce the fairness and legitimacy of elections, while Democrats are generally resistant to partisan cues.
election administration, voter registration, public opinion, automatic voter registration, survey experiment

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