Since Georgia started automatic voter registration at driver's license offices, the voter rolls have boomed, rising to a record high of nearly 7.7 million people.
That rapid expansion stalled last year, when the number of new voters automatically signed up plunged. About 48% fewer new voters registered when getting driver's licenses in 2021 compared with the prior year, according to state election records.
Georgia's growth in voters was stunted in part by its own success. So many voters registered over the past five years that there aren't as many eligible voters left to sign up.
Another explanation for the steep decline in new voters is that fewer unregistered voters visited driver's license offices during the coronavirus pandemic. When Georgians aren't getting as many driver's licenses, they aren't registering to vote either.
The slowdown in registrations shows the limits of changes to Georgia's voting population as this year's elections approach. After years of an increasing and diversifying electorate, it now appears to be stabilizing in a state that's nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
"The effectiveness of previous voter registration efforts is shrinking the pool of potential new unregistered voters," said Bernard Fraga, an Emory University political science professor who studies registration trends. "But that doesn't mean there's not a lot of work to do to make sure all eligible Georgians can cast a ballot. It just means it's harder to do that work."
Georgia's growing electorate
Registered voters: 7.7 million
Automatic registration of new voters in 2020: 289,105
Automatic registration of new voters in 2021: 149,045
New voters under age 35: 50%
Source: Georgia election records
Georgia has been a national leader in automatic voter registration since it started in fall 2016, lifting its voter registration rate from 76% to 95% of the citizen voting-age population in 2020, according to a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Automatic registration accounts for over half of Georgia's new voters each year.
Georgians may have been discouraged from signing up for elections after the passage of a sweeping voting law last year, said Aklima Khondoker, chief legal officer for the New Georgia Project, a voter registration and mobilization organization. The law, Senate Bill 202, created new rules for voter ID, absentee ballots, drop boxes and early voting hours.
"If there is a dip in people who participate, it could be because of the misinformation and disinformation about our elections," Khondoker said. "People hear a lot of things about election integrity, and a lot of people are concerned that their vote will not count."
Automatic voter registration through driver's license offices is a relatively recent innovation across the United States, implemented in 22 states since 2015. Eight of the 10 states with the highest voter registration rates also have automatic voter registration.
By using driver's license offices to register voters, election officials say they can be certain that voter information is accurate and matched to a photo ID.
Georgia's decline in automatic voter registration rates is noteworthy because most other states haven't yet reported similar dips, Fraga said.
However, in Oregon, the first state to implement automatic voter registration, the rate of new voters automatically registered fell 38% in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Oregon secretary of state's office.
In Georgia, the number of new voters automatically registered slipped to 149,000 in 2021, compared with 289,000 in 2020 and over 346,000 in each of the previous three years, according to state election records.
Overall, the total number of registered voters in Georgia remained stable in 2021, with cancellations of outdated registrations negating growth. There were about 7.66 million registered voters by the end of the year.
Still, more Georgians are becoming eligible to vote every year when they turn 18. About 50% of new voters who registered last year were under 35 years old.
Even if automatic registration continues to lack the impact it initially had, the number of voters will likely continue to steadily increase along with the state's population, which is now over 10.7 million, a 10% jump during the prior decade.