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Oregon’s New Automatic Voter Registration Is Unlikely To Have A Big Effect

You want to vote? Oregon is the place to be. In an era when new barriers to voting are popping up all the time, Oregon on Monday became the first state to legalize automatic voter registration. But the move is unlikely to revolutionize elections in Oregon; instead, it’s a necessary but not sufficient step to greater participation.

North Dakota, the only state without voter registration (any resident can show up on Election Day and vote with a valid ID), shows this at the most basic level. Even with a competitive Senate election, only 60 percent of North Dakota’s eligible voters cast a ballot in 2012. That’s less than 2 percentage points higher than turnout nationwide and equal to North Dakota’s neighbor South Dakota, which has similar demographics and had no competitive Senate race that year. The 2008 election also featured a minimal gap in turnout between North Dakota and the nation.

That’s not to say automatic registration has no effect. Most academic literature indicates that automatic registration slightly increases turnout. Staci Rhine of Wittenberg University found a 3 percentage point estimated increase in turnout if states got rid of voter registration requirements entirely. That matches research by Stephen Ansolabehere and David M. Konisky, who were then at MIT, which looked at New York and Ohio counties that instituted voter registration requirements between 1965 and 1977. Ansolabehere and Konisky — coming at the problem from the opposite direction of Rhine — found a 3 to 5 percentage point decrease in voter turnout because of the implementation of voter registration laws.

More specifically, David Nickerson of Notre Dame demonstrated that the vast majority of previously unregistered voters would not cast a ballot even if automatically registered. Using field experiments in six American cities, he showed that about one-fourth of previously unregistered people would vote after registration. As Nickerson notes, this estimate falls right in the middle of most prior experiments.

While the majority of recent research suggests automatic registration has a marginal effect on turnout, some academics have found potentially larger effects. John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus discovered that states with preregistration (allowing 16- or 17-year-olds to register in advance of being able to vote) boosted youth turnout by up to 13 percentage points compared to those states without it. They point out that even their lowest estimates generate a significant result, and conclude that “this analysis offers clear evidence that states that implement preregistration laws increase youth turnout in their states.”

As for which party benefits from automatic registration, you might have expected it would help Democrats because non-registered adults tend to be more Democratic-leaning than likely voters. Holbein and Hillygus argue, though, that preregistration among young voters (a very Democratic group) might be slightly more beneficial to Republicans “because the mobilization effect gap is smaller than the party voting gap.” In other words, while there might be more unregistered Democrats, the unregistered Republicans are more likely to vote once registered.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.