Automatic voter registration bill nears passage

  • Hawaii’s legislature got a step closer to enacting automatic voter registration on Friday, as the House passed Senate Bill 159. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, file)

Hawaii is one step closer to joining a growing number of states enacting automatic voter registration.

Senate Bill 159 would make voter registration part of the application process for a driver’s license or identification card. The measure was passed by the state House on Friday, with only one vote — Rep. Bob McDermott (R-Oahu) — in opposition. The bill now returns to the Senate and will likely head to conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate amendments.


The most significant discrepancy between the two lies in specific language whether one would be required to opt into or opt out of registering to vote. Under the Senate’s proposal, a qualified applicant would automatically be registered to vote upon completion of the license/identification card application unless affirmatively declining registration; under the House’s proposal, one would not be registered to vote until they’ve made the choice to register.

Supporters of the measure say AVR will make registering to vote more convenient and cost-effective, and would keep the voter registration rolls more current.

“It breaks down barriers for people who otherwise wouldn’t engage,” said the bill’s author Sen. Chris Lee (D-Oahu) in a March 8 talk story.

While the bill has garnered widespread support — including from Hawaii’s Office of Elections, Department of Transportation, the League of Women Voters and the ACLU of Hawaii, among others — concerns regarding privacy and potential registration of non-citizens have been raised.

The bill does address the privacy concern, making specific note of the state’s residence address confidentiality program in Hawaii Revised Statutes 11-14.5, which would remain unchanged.

“We are pleased that this version of the measure requires providing voters information about the ‘Address Confidentiality Program,’” said the League of Women Voters in their its testimony, “and hope the bill can be further amended to make it possible for voters to request this assistance in a separate application as part of registering to vote, further eliminating another barrier to registering.”

As for the citizenship concern, the bill defines a qualified applicant is defined as “a person who qualifies to register as a voter by law,” and specifies that voter registration information shall not be transmitted if an applicant has demonstrated a lack of United States citizenship.

Still, clarifications suggested in testimony could be considered in conference committee.

Should the legislation be passed into law, Hawaii would join 20 states and the District of Columbia in enacting AVR policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon was the first state to enact AVR in March 2015.


Similar bills have been introduced in Hawaii’s Legislature in recent years. Last year’s Senate Bill 2005 was one of the many pieces of legislation abandoned as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In 2019, Senate Bill 412 reached conference committee, but never made it Gov. David Ige’s desk.

Email Tom Linder at

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