21 states and the District of Columbia have implemented or authorized the implementation of automatic or automated voter registration (AVR). Unless registrants decline, AVR automatically registers or updates addresses for eligible citizens based on motor vehicle data. This information is electronically transmitted from state agencies to election officials.
Montana does not yet allow AVR. However, in addition to improving the integrity and accuracy of voter rolls, research shows that AVR would greatly reduce registration and administration costs. By electronically updating registrations before election day, AVR could have saved Montana more than $1 million in the 2018 election cycle through reduced paper-based registrations, same-day registration transactions, and undeliverable election mail.
Estimated Savings from Implementing AVR in Montana, 2018 Election Cycle
|Effect of AVR||Estimated Statewide Savings|
|Reduced Paper-Based Registrations||$993,805.44|
|Reduced Same-Day Registrations||$10,872.90|
|Reduced Undeliverable Election Mail||$29,429.84|
Savings from Reduced Paper-Based Registrations
Processing paper voter registration applications is labor-intensive and expensive. Among other steps, the process includes data entry, following up with applicants on missing information or errors, and paying overtime and additional temporary staff to process applications in a timely fashion before election day.
Previous research shows that these costs are significant, and that there are significant savings from administration changes that eliminate paper-based forms. For example, after implementing online voter registration (OVR) in 2002, Arizona went from spending at least 83 cents for each paper registration to only 3 cents for each online registration. See Washington Institute of the Study of Ethnicity and Race et al., Online Voter Registration (OLVR) Systems in Arizona and Washington: Evaluating Usage, Public Confidence and Implementation Processes, (2010).
AVR goes even further than OVR, eliminating paper forms not only for individuals who affirmatively register or update their address online, but also for any individual who is automatically enrolled or has their registration updated through a DMV office. The potential cost savings are significant, as shown in the following table estimating the labor costs associated with paper-based registration forms for Montana and six counties of differing sizes in the State. We estimate that Montana counties spent almost $1 million on processing paper-based registration forms during the 2018 election cycle. The costs are significant regardless of county size. The State’s largest counties could have saved more than $100,000 each election from eliminating paper-based forms, while even smaller counties could have saved thousands of dollars if paper-based forms were reduced or eliminated.
Estimated Labor Cost of Paper-Based Registration in Montana, 2018 Election Cycle
|Jurisdiction||Total Registered||Paper-based forms processed||Est. Avg. Labor Cost per Form||Est. Total Labor Cost|
In this analysis, labor costs rely on 2017 estimates of the average cost of full-time staff processing applications, following up with applicants about missing or erroneous information, and temporary staff processing applications. See Doug Chapin & David Kuennen, The Cost (Savings) of Reform: An Analysis of Local Registration-Related Costs and Potential Savings Through Automatic Voter Registration, March 2017. We estimate these costs for individual cities based on survey data of election officials in large, medium, and small jurisdictions regarding the costs of processing registration applications. Id. Notably, this total does not include the costs of printing voter registration forms, mailings related to duplicate registrations, and the postage of forwarding forms to the proper recipient, meaning that our estimate is relatively conservative.
The registration totals are drawn from the EAC’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) data. We calculate paper-based registrations by considering the total number of forms received during the 2018 election cycle and subtracting forms reported as submitted through online pre-registration or through same day registration transactions. The cost of the latter category is considered separately below.
Savings from Reducing Election Day Registrations
Processing election day registrations imposes additional costs on county election officials. Administrators must expend funds on paper forms, verification, and labor to process these late registrations. Based on survey information from other states with same day registration, we estimate that processing each election day registration costs approximately $1.35. When thousands of voters register on election day, these costs accumulate quickly.
AVR has the potential to eliminate a significant share of election day registrations and the associated costs. The table below shows the number of election day registrations in Montana in 2018, as well as the figures in five representative counties. These totals are drawn from the EAC’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) data. Under AVR, the vast majority of voters registering on election day would likely have become registered or had their addresses updated to the appropriate jurisdiction or precinct, rendering thousands of election day registrations unnecessary. We estimate that Montana could have saved more than $10,000 from reduced election day registrations during the 2018 election cycle.
Estimated Cost of Election Day Registration in Montana, 2018 Election Cycle
|Jurisdiction||Election Day Registrations||Est. Cost of Election Day Registration Issues ($1.35 each)|
AVR can similarly achieve significant savings by reducing undeliverable mailings to voters. AVR will update thousands of voters’ information in advance of these mailings, significantly reducing the number returned as undeliverable. The following table shows the number of mail ballots returned as undeliverable in the 2018 election, statewide and in five representative counties. Estimates from other states indicate that the cost of sending a mail ballot is roughly $2.12, and better records could save counties the cost of an undeliverable ballot. If voter addresses were updated in advance of the election through AVR, these ballots would reach the correct address, and not be returned undeliverable, saving Montana nearly $30,000.
Estimated Cost of Undeliverable Mail Ballots in Montana, 2018 Election Cycle
|Jurisdiction||2018 Ballots Returned Undeliverable||2018 Undeliverable Ballots Cost ($2.12 each)|
Although AVR has short-term implementation costs, they are far outweighed by long-term savings. By eliminating paper registration forms through AVR, we estimate that Montana could save almost $1 million per election cycle. Similarly, by updating registrations and address information in advance of elections, AVR can reduce election day registrations and undeliverable mail, saving an additional $40,000 each cycle.