ATLANTA — A change in a government website that used to make voter registration automatic in Georgia may have resulted in a sharp drop in people registering as they obtained driver's licenses.
A review of data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the share of Georgians who registered through the state Department of Driver Services fell from 79% in 2020 to 39% last year.
Pictures of the department's website show that before January 2021, drivers had to check a box to decline to register or update their voting information. But the website changed last year so that voters had to click "Yes" or "No" when asked if they wanted to register.
However, the intent of the program is to register drivers by default, not give them an option. The share of unregistered Georgia adults had fallen sharply since automatic registration began in 2016, adding more than 1 million people to the voting rolls.
"It's really not true automatic voter registration," Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice told the newspaper. "This seems like a good example of the importance of automatic voter registration in its proper form. Automatic registration takes some of the stumbling blocks out of the way of voters to help them participate."
The Department of Driver Services recently changed the website again to make voter registration the default option, but it's unclear if that will change registration rates. The "opt out" is more prominently displayed than in prior years.
The department said it's up to drivers to decide.
"They make the choice. The question is still the same, and if that person wants to make a choice, that is their choice to make," said department spokesperson Shevondah Leslie. "We cannot say that changes to the website made a difference."
One million fewer people participated in automatic voter registration last year, though many of them are likely already registered, according to department data. About 95% of eligible Georgia voters were registered in 2020, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Still, the change means that people turning 18 or moving to Georgia for the first time may have missed out on getting registered.
Democratic U.S. House members Carolyn Bourdeaux, Nikema Williams and Sanford Bishop wrote letters Wednesday to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland citing "extreme concerns" about decreases in automatic registration.
"This steep decline raises serious questions regarding access to the ballot in this year's election, including the possibility that voters may believe they are registered to vote but are not and are therefore unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote," they wrote.
The three requested an investigation, notification of voters whose registration information wasn't updated, and provisional ballots for affected voters in the May 24 primary.
A new voter who moved from Florida last year, Jackie Harder, said she tried to register when she got her Georgia driver's license but later received a notice saying she wasn't registered.
"This is such a significant drop. I don't know why that didn't raise all kinds of red flags," said Harder, a Blackshear resident who later registered with a paper form. "If people are being disenfranchised, whether due to human or technological errors, that is a big problem."
In response to questions about automatic registration, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called it "a false political narrative."
"It remains easy to register, easy to vote, and hard to cheat in Georgia," Raffensperger said in a statement Tuesday.
All states are required to offer voter registration opportunities at driver's license offices under a 1993 federal law, but automatic registration is not required.