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March 19, 2010
4:06 PM


212.633.1405 |

New Report: States Well-Position to Have Automatic Voter Registration at Public Assistance Agencies

WASHINGTON - March 19 - Public assistance agencies are generally well-positioned to help modernize our voter registration process by moving toward automatic registration of eligible persons who use agency services, according to a new report released by Demos. In response to ongoing state-and federal-level debate on the need to modernize our voter registration system, several reform proposals have been advanced to automatically register eligible citizens to vote through state agencies.

Almost 60 million citizens remained unregistered to vote--and thus unable to participate--in the 2008 election, one of the most talked-about elections in recent history. At the same time, millions of registered voters were prevented from voting in 2008 because of problems with our voter registration system.

To address some of the core ongoing problems with our voter registration system, many policymakers and election experts are calling for it to be modernized in part by using US government lists, such as those maintained by departments of motor vehicles and public assistance agencies, to automatically register all eligible citizens. Using public assistance databases to help populate the voter rolls will help ensure that low-income citizens, a historically under-represented group, will be registered and able to cast a ballot on Election Day.

In order to better understand public assistance databases and their ability to facilitate automatic voter registration, Demos conducted a survey of public assistance agencies in 41 states, and recently published the findings.

"A central goal of any automatic voter registration proposal should be a representative electorate in which all eligible citizens, including those from historically underrepresented communities, are effectively registered and able to cast a ballot on Election Day," said Scott Novakowski, Demos senior policy analyst and co-author of the report. "State databases of individuals receiving public assistance benefits--including SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid--can be an important source for registering low-income citizens-one of the most under-registered segments of the population. While there are some minor issues that will still need to be worked out, our research shows that public assistance agencies are generally well-positioned to participate in a modernized system of voter registration."

Demos conducted telephone interviews with public assistance personnel in 41 out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia). A subsequent follow-up survey was received back from 29 of the 41 states. The respondents were primarily state-level program and policy directors who were both familiar with the benefits application process and the use of eligibility databases.

Key Findings:

  • Public assistance agencies are generally well-positioned for voter registration modernization. Much of the information necessary for registering individuals to vote is being captured, maintained, and updated in agency databases. Nevertheless, some states will be required to adjust their systems or alter their procedures in order to capture and seamlessly transmit the necessary data in the most voter-protective way.
  • The majority of the information required to register to vote-full name, date of birth, and Social Security number -is collected and stored for every household member receiving benefits in virtually all public assistance databases. Citizenship status must be provided by all applicants for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid and is a required field in the vast majority of databases we surveyed. While some states are able to upload a digital image of an applicant's signature, many others do not currently have this capability.
  • All public assistance records require entry of first and last name for every client in the database. However, not all states require a "formal legal name." Some states will instead allow the use of nicknames or aliases (e.g., Ted rather than Edward). Special attention will need to be paid in attempting to identify duplicates and to ensure that no eligible voter is kept off the rolls or prevented from voting because they prefer to use a nickname.
  • Some states reported that they do not require all clients to provide a residential address, allowing a mailing address to be used instead. This is a potential problem as all states require a residential address for voter registration. All states surveyed with the exception of two, however, have a field for residential addresses in their database, even if not required.
  • While some states use USPS-certified software to standardize and improve the accuracy of the addresses in their databases, others do not, potentially complicating the already difficult processes of eliminating duplicate registrations and maintaining accurate voter lists.

"We hope state and federal lawmakers will take action to modernize our voter registration system, and will make use of the information compiled by public agencies-which serve millions of Americans-to help bring many more of our fellow citizens into the democratic process," said Brenda Wright, Director of Demos' Democracy Program.


A multi-issue national organization, Demos combines research, policy development, and advocacy to influence public debates and catalyze change. We publish books, reports, and briefing papers that illuminate critical problems and advance innovative solutions; work at both the national and state level with advocates and policymakers to promote reforms; help to build the capacity and skills of key progressive constituencies; project our values into the media by promoting Demos Fellows and staff in print, broadcast, and Internet venues; and host public events that showcase new ideas and leading progressive voices.

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