Advocates and Legislators Debate the Promise (and Potential Problems) of Online Registration

Cross-posted to Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Online voter registration is a leading election reform issue often touted as an avenue for modernizing voter registration for the 21st century. A new report by the Pew Center on the States says online voter registration is a cost- and time-effective method that is widely used and favored by people in states with established programs. With more states moving towards online registration, legislators and advocacy groups are moving to address concerns and find innovative new ways to ensure Americans can take advantage of the technology.

"Online voter registration is an important step forward for the elections community and a critical component of a modernized system," the Pew Center on the States writes of its new report, which reviews online voter registration programs in the states that "pioneered" the system, Arizona and Washington. "Matching voter records from an online system with other official data sources could provide election officials with more accurate data and better tools to manage their voter lists and administer elections."  

Until last year, Arizona, Washington, and Kansas were the only states that allowed citizens who have records with their states’ motor vehicles division to complete and submit a voter registration ballot online. Last year, similar online voter registration policies were adopted in Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Oregon, and Utah. And California is expected to implement online voter registration in the next two years. Currently, at least five states are considering similar bills.

Supporters of online voter registration point to low cost (in Arizona, one online application cost $0.03 to process, versus $0.83 for a paper application) and user-friendliness as reasons to consider this election reform.

"The report takes note of the public’s overwhelmingly positive response to online registration," wrote Steven Rosenfeld in electionlineWeekly, the Pew Center on the States’ newsletter last Thursday. "More than 90 percent of online registrants in both Arizona and Washington said the system was easy to use, and about 70 percent of voters in each state said they would register online if they needed to update their voting information."  

Despite positive reviews from the majority of Internet voter registrants, some voting rights advocates and legislators remain cautious about certain issues surrounding online registration, such as availability of internet access, possession of a valid driver’s license or ID, or voter verification procedures.

In general, 77 percent of Americans have Internet access, according to a 2009 Project Vote memo by consultant, Dr. Jody Herman. However, just 41 percent of citizens earning $25,000 per year or less have online access. African-American and Latino citizens are also less likely to have Internet access at home (63%). Latino communities in particular already struggle with low voter registration rates at 12 percentage points behind the voting eligible population.

To help reach  these constituencies (which disproportionately rely on third-party voter registration drives to get on the voter rolls) Project Vote announced yesterday it is developing a new way for community organizations to conduct voter registration drives efficiently and effectively through improved use of technology.  

Project Vote has teamed up with Echo Interaction Group to create a mobile canvassing platform that is universally compatible with all iPhone, Blackberry, and Sybian-based operating systems—including the new iPad. Instead of using the cumbersome paper-based applications, community-based voter registration drives will be able to help individuals complete applications on mobile devices..  

"With the new application, data collected is immediately processed and uploaded to state election officials, providing seamless and stress-free processing of voter registration applications," according to a Project Vote press release yesterday. "In addition to being more efficient, this digital switch should also drastically decrease costly and timely mistakes that reduce team efficiency and lead to rejected or duplicate applications."

"This has the potential to revolutionize voter engagement efforts for the 21st century," said Project Vote executive director, Michael Slater.

Utilizing modern technology to facilitate more effective and accurate voter registration drives can also be extended to traditional methods of voter registration under federal election law. Online voter registration could be even more effective, for example, if integrated with the National Voter Registration Act, allowing clients of both Motor Vehicle Divisions and public assistance agencies to seamlessly integrate and transfer existing electronic data collection systems to election officials. This could also reduce costs, minimize errors, and increase the likelihood that voter registration services mandated under the NVRA are consistently offered to clients.

As with most things, the ultimate value of any online registration plan will be in details. Last month the Georgia Senate adopted a bill to allow citizens who have a valid driver’s license to register to vote at the secretary of state’s Web site, but several aspects of plan raised controversy over the bill’s potential to improve voter registration. For example, the bill passed onto the state House without a proposed amendment to extend online voter registration access to those who have identification other than a driver’s license, according to the Associated Press.

It also went forward over objections from some democrats that the language in the bill could allow the secretary of state to replicate a voter registration verification procedure that the Department of Justice recently found disproportionately, and sometimes wrongfully, disenfranchised voter applicants of color. (Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Georgia must seek preclearance from the Justice Department before implementing any changes to election and voting procedures; the DOJ determined that the systematic purging of voters in an effort to verify citizenship was in violation of federal election law.) While the critics of the bill don’t object to online registration, the verification question has some Georgia lawmakers concerned that a potentially good election reform could only be used to hurt more voters.

"We have plowed this ground before. [Online Voter Registration bill,] SB 406 will have the impact of diluting the voting strength of people of color," Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said in a March 17 Atlanta Journal- Constitution story. "Online access is good in theory, but it is only as good as the verification process."

Tags: election reform, online voter registration, Georgia, Project Vote, Voting Rights, Voting Rights (all tags)

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