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Minnesotans who are eligible but not registered to vote will now automatically be signed up when they get or renew their driver's license — unless they opt out — a change that could mean up to 120,000 more voters in the system by the November election.

The new program, which passed the Legislature last year, officially got up and running at the end of April. Since then, more than 15,000 Minnesotans have already been registered to vote, outpacing state projections for the new program.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who pushed for the change for more than 15 years starting as a legislator, called it a "huge deal" at a news conference explaining the new system. Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia already use an automatic voter registration system.

"So many people have put in so much work over so many years to make today a reality," said Simon.

Simon said between 4,000 and 6,000 Minnesotans are being registered each week through automatic voter registration, which is also helping to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. His office estimates there are hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who are eligible to vote but aren't yet registered in the state.

The process to verify citizenship and other eligibility details involves the Department of Public Safety and state and local election officials, and those who do not want to register to vote do have an opt-out option.

"It's important that we make voting easy and accessible for Minnesotans who are eligible," said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson. "It's equally important to ensure the process remains secure as ever."

Here's what you need to know about how the new system works, how to opt out and what other ways lawmakers are exploring to help people get registered to vote.

Secretary of State Steve Simon explains Tuesday how the new automatic voter registration system works.
Secretary of State Steve Simon explains Tuesday how the new automatic voter registration system works.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

How is this different from the old system?

Previously, Minnesotans had to check a box and opt into the system in order to sign up to vote when they renewed or signed up for their driver's license. The new law removes that step, putting the burden on the election officials rather than the voter to kick off the process of registering them to vote.

How does the state verify citizenship and eligibility?

The new system is a slight modification to what the state has already been doing for verification when people renew or apply for a new or duplicate driver's license, said Pong Xiong, director of the Driver and Vehicle Services division.

The Department of Public Safety reviews documents such as birth certificates and passports to review age and citizenship for voter registration. They also look at previously provided documents people submitted to apply for an enhanced driver's license or Real ID. Once verified, the file is sent to the Secretary of State's Office through a "secure and encrypted method" each night, Xiong said.

The Secretary of State's Office then checks if there's a match with an existing voter record. If there's an exact match, that means the person is already registered to vote. Otherwise they determine if an individual's right to vote had been removed by a court, making them ineligible. If a voter is eligible, that information is sent to their local election officials.

What if I don't want to be registered to vote?

Once local election officials receive information that a new voter record was created, they mail a notice informing the person that they will be registered to vote. The mailing includes an opportunity for individuals to opt out if they do not wish to be registered, said Paul Linnell, the deputy elections director at the Secretary of State's Office.

If someone returns the opt-out notice within 20 days after it was mailed, that person will not be registered to vote. So far, about 800 individuals have opted out, either by proactively returning their form or through mailers that have come back as undeliverable, Linnell said.

Those voters can still choose to register in advance of Election Day or at the voting booth using same-day registration, though the Secretary of State's Office anticipates automatic voter registration will decrease the need for same-day signups by 80% to 90%.

How long does this process take?

Simon said the process takes about four to six weeks to register voters, from the time they walk into their Driver and Vehicle Services office to renew or apply for their license to when they're in the system. Voters who have been successfully registered will also get a post card confirming they are registered with their polling location.

Could this program be expanded?

Simon said creating an opt-out system wasn't far from what they were already doing with the Department of Public Safety to help people get registered to vote. In the future lawmakers might consider expanding the program to other areas people interact with the government, such as when someone gets a hunting or fishing license.

"We didn't want to bite off more than we could chew," Simon said. "We're starting with a very big and common one, which is driver's licenses."

What questions do you have?

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