Every District resident over the age of 18 who gets a driver’s license would become automatically registered to vote under a spending plan the D.C. Council is expected to give final approval to later this month.
The spending plan, which advanced easily on Tuesday, would mean the District would join eight states with automatic voter registration.
Many Democratic lawmakers embraced automatic registration as a way to counter restrictive voter ID laws supported by some conservatives. Government groups have also pressed states to link voter registration with other government databases, saying doing so would help clean up inaccurate state voter rolls. Lawmakers in 32 states have introduced measures in the last year to automatically register drivers to vote.
Just this week, the Illinois House voted 115 to 0 in support of a law that will automatically register voters when they visit various state agencies.
“These kind of opt-out or automatic voter registration systems are just good 21st century government,” said Justin Levitt, who worked as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under former president Barack Obama. “I would expect more of them as more states realize that the inefficient means of voter registration are actually pretty expensive.”
Under the plan approved unanimously last year by the D.C. Council — but not funded until now — every adult driver who gets a license would have his or her name, address and party affiliation forwarded to the D.C. Board of Elections and entered on voter rolls in the nation’s capital.
If a driver does not want to become a registered voter, he or she will have to opt out of the automatic registration system.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who introduced the automatic voter registration bill, called the funding plan an important step to expand voting access.
“It flips the presumption, where right now they ask you if want to be registered. Instead of that we’re just going to go ahead and get you registered, and that absolutely helps enfranchise voters,” Allen said. “Just as important, it should significantly increase the accuracy of voter rolls. People update their address all over the place, but rarely at the board of elections.”
Under the budget plan, the board of elections would hire two employees to run the system, and funding would be available to the Department of Motor Vehicles to complete an upgrade to transfer the data. The District’s chief financial officer estimated the new system will cost $659,000 over four years.
Allen said he hoped the DMV and board of elections could begin implementing the system on Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year. It was not clear Wednesday if that would be possible, a spokeswoman for the DMV did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The new District law also lengthens the period for voter registration, moving the deadline from the current 30 days preceding a regularly scheduled election to 21 days. And voters will be allowed to file a change of address, even if that means changing wards, on Election Day.
There are currently 478,000 registered voters in the District.
Peter Jamison contributed to this report.