ATLANTA — The sudden drop in voter registrations stood out to Richard Barron, Fulton County’s former elections director, when he first noticed it in February 2021.
Without explanation, the number of registration applications had dramatically declined, from 35,000 the previous February to less than 6,000 in the same month a year later. Similar decreases happened across Georgia throughout last year.
Barron suspected something had changed with Georgia’s automatic registration program, which was supposed to sign up eligible voters by default at driver’s licenses offices unless they opt out. He said his staff called and emailed the secretary of state’s office several times but didn’t find answers.
It turned out the Georgia Department of Driver Services had shut off automatic voter registration when it redesigned its website early last year as part of a broader technology overhaul. Instead of registering drivers by default, the new website required drivers to click “Yes” or “No” when asked whether they wanted to sign up.
That small change had a big impact, cutting in half how many people submitted registration information at driver’s license offices last year compared with 2020, a drop from 79% to 39%, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The problem wasn’t fixed until last month, after Barron contacted the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, a nonprofit organization focused on automatic registration, which then alerted the Department of Driver Services.
“We couldn’t get any explanation from the state about why it happened. Whatever was going on, they didn’t want to talk about it,” said Barron, who resigned last month. “I can’t believe the secretary of state didn’t notice unless they were paying no attention.”
The secretary of state’s office refused to answer questions about whether it investigated the decrease in registrations or communicated with the Department of Driver Services about the issue.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger responded to questions with the same statement he gave last week, saying “it remains easy to register” in Georgia. A spokesman said the secretary of state’s office worked with the Department of Driver Services and confirmed automatic registration is now working correctly.
Since Georgia started automatic voter registration in fall 2016, the state’s voter rolls grew from 6.6 million to 7.7 million today. Automatic registration increased both election access and security, verifying voters’ information and matching it to a photo ID before they’re registered.
But without automatic registration last year, sign-ups fell off. New voter registrations from driver’s license offices dropped 48% to 149,000 last year, and address changes decreased 51% to 175,000, according to election data.
Because most Georgians are already registered to vote — a federal report shows 95% of the eligible population — many people might have chosen not to update their registration information at driver’s license offices last year. But voters who recently moved without re-registering at their new addresses wouldn’t have accurate districts or voting locations listed in this year’s elections, forcing them to cast a ballot at their previous polling places.
The website change was made by staff at the Department of Driver Services during its implementation of a $1 million computer licensing system called Georgia DRIVES in January 2021, spokeswoman Shevondah Leslie said. The department’s leadership didn’t become aware of the change until it was recently contacted by the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, she said.
“It wasn’t a nefarious decision,” Leslie said. “At no point did our customers lose the option to send that information over to the secretary of state. That has consistently been there. They still had the choice.”
The department restored automatic registration by replacing the “Yes” or “No” option with an “Opt-out” button in March, 15 months after it had been removed. Drivers now have their registration information submitted to election officials unless they click on the “Opt-out.”
Advocates for automatic registration say it works because it doesn’t require potential voters to think about whether to sign up. They’re able to become active voters just by pushing “Next” as they’re moving through the online form when applying for or renewing a driver’s license.
Data isn’t yet available to show whether the restoration of automatic registration will increase participation in the program to previous levels.
“The Department of Driver Services has consistently stepped up when presented with the opportunity to make Georgia elections more secure while making eligible voters’ lives easier,” said Ali Javery, spokeswoman for the Center for Secure and Modern Elections.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop, Carolyn Bourdeaux and Nikema Williams sent letters last week asking Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate, but they haven’t responded.
“Right now, it is possible for voters around the state to think they are registered, only to learn they are not on election day,” Bourdeaux said.
Georgia implemented automatic voter registration administratively, without changing state law, in September 2016. All states are required to offer voter registration opportunities at driver’s license offices under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the motor-voter law.
Georgia’s voter registration deadline was Monday, meaning it’s too late now for people to register or update their information in time for the May 24 primary. There’s still time to register for the June 21 primary runoffs and November general election.
Georgia voters can check their registration information and find their polling places online through the state’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov.