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Georgia voters sign up in record numbers following change to automatic registration in 2016


Georgia voters sign up in record numbers following change to automatic registration in 2016

Jun 07, 2023 | 8:10 pm ET
By Stanley Dunlap
Georgia voters sign up in record numbers following change to automatic registration in 2016
An election center’s report found that Georgia’s automatic voter registration drives the largest share of new voters. Mario Tama/Getty Images

A national election research center is proclaiming Georgia a leader in voter registration for adopting a system that’s greatly increased election participation over the last several years.

According to a report released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, during the first four years since Georgia implemented a new automatic voter registration system, the rate of Georgians registered to vote increased from 78% to 98% in 2020. The study says a key factor spurring the current 7.1 million active voters in Georgia is attributable to the Georgia Department of Driver Services policy change to automatically sign up residents for voter eligibility whenever they apply for a new driver’s license or state ID.

The state department also immediately notifies state and local election officials about any changes to a voter’s contact information when they move to a new residence. 

The study praised Georgia’s election officials for maintaining more accurate voter rolls with the aid of a multistate partnership that allows states to share information whenever someone moves.

Georgia’s voting process allows election officials to get the information more quickly in order to determine a prospective voter’s eligibility, the report said.  

Moreover, 97% of Georgians have both their driver’s license and a Social Security number associated with their voter records, the study confirmed. The automatic voter registration was put into place in the fall of 2016 by future GOP Gov. Brian Kemp who was Georgia’s secretary of state at the time. 

“Georgia shows us that states can approach election issues in a way that both increases access to the vote and the integrity of the process,” said David Becker, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based election center. “While other states have made great strides in implementing automatic voter registration in their own way, Georgia is notable for its bipartisan approach, which can be a model for others to follow.

“Georgia has been particularly successful in integrating its motor vehicles and voter databases, so that when anyone updates their driver’s license information, their voter record is also automatically updated,” Becker said. “And by ensuring that nearly all voter records have a driver’s license number, the state has also made verifying mail ballots more secure and easier to verify for both voters and election officials.”

In addition, the analysis shows that the statewide voter list has become more representative of Georgia’s demographics based on age and gender. The state’s inactive voter list has also decreased from 16% in the early 2000s to 5% today.

Georgia voters sign up in record numbers following change to automatic registration in 2016
Georgia Secretary of State’s Gabriel Sterling criticized threats to election workers in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder (file 2020)

“I think (the report) shows that Georgia is dedicated to efficient election administration,” said Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. “We’ve got to understand that there are lots of factors that go into why people vote and why they register or why not.

“We are about getting the tools there for the individuals in the counties to do their jobs, and trying to make it as easy as we possibly can,” Sterling added during a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon. 

The number of Georgians listed on voter rolls have also been boosted by in-migration from other states. Georgia’s population has grown from 9.7 million in 2010 to 10.9 million in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition, election experts attribute some of the increase to the popularity of some political candidates prompting more people to head to the polls.

Controversies surrounding automatic registration, cross-state database

A lengthy breakdown of Georgia’s automated voting system began in January 2021 when the driver services’ website stopped a default setting to sign up prospective voters. The department would remove the “Yes” or “No” buttons from the website 15 months later following a steep decline in new voters signing up.

Voter registrations levels have returned to normal since the opt-in default function was restored.

Meanwhile, the cross-state election database has been under attack of late.

In 2019, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that Georgia would become the 26th state to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, which grants members access to voter rolls lists and other information that can be shared whenever a person moves to another state. 

Despite the fact that many state election officials refer to the database as an invaluable resource, Florida, Missouri, and West Virginia have recently announced plans to withdraw from the partnership. Republican elected officials in the three states have mentioned concerns about data security and accuracy as the pressure mounts from some far-right factions spreading election misinformation.  

Georgia is no stranger to election controversies and disputes about the integrity of elections.

After a record five million Georgians voted in the 2020 presidential election, the state became one of the targets of unfounded claims of widespread voting fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump and many of his allies. Georgia GOP lawmakers overhauled the state’s election law in 2021 in response to the outcry over Trump’s narrow defeat to Democratic President Joe Biden.

Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups accused Republican legislators of lending credence to election deniers and for attempting to disenfranchise minorities and other marginalized groups. 

Since then, Republicans have won major legal victories over election law challenges and are referencing the large voter turnout in the 2022 midterms as proof that the changes to absentee ballots and other rules didn’t deter voters.

Sterling on Wednesday said that he understands that conspiracies will persist about Georgia using flawed methods of voter registration and for the cross-state data sharing. The study reinforces that Georgia is at the forefront of making voting accessible to eligible voters, he said. 

“Conservatives who want to cut down on the appearance of fraud, these tools are extremely helpful on that front,” Sterling said. “But they’re not just helpful to Republican states. They’re helpful to Democratic states as well.”