The phrase, “elections policy discussion” is often code for “partisan tangles.” Think voter ID, same day registration and early voting. It’s been refreshing to identify one elections issue—online voter registration—that isn’t a partisan tangle. 

Providing an online voter registration option for voters appeals to officials who span party lines and look for efficiency, accuracy and citizen-friendly procedures. It also appeals to anyone who’s comfortable ordering movie tickets online. Between those two categories, that’s just about all policymakers, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Last month, a new “tangle” emerged around online voter registration in Minnesota. It’s not partisan, it’s a “balance of powers” tangle.  Secretary of State Mark Ritchie surprised the state with a full-fledged online voter registration system. It was a surprise, because he didn’t come to the legislature to request enabling legislation. His system went live under an existing statute governing electronic transactions.

Legislators didn’t take kindly to this proactive approach. Neither did the governor or the state auditor. “We were completely blindsided” says Senator Scott Newman (R).  “He’s grossly overstated his authority,” in an interview with NCSL.

While Senator Newman and many others are miffed, it doesn’t change the merits of online voter registration, he says. “I think on both sides of the aisle, legislators are very interested in online registration. I think it’s a good idea, and we should be exploring it.”

The hitch is, how? Two other states, Arizona and Kansas, have also implemented online voter registration without specific legislation, in 2002 and 2009, respectively. The other 17 states which have, or are on their way to having, online voter registration followed the legislative route.

 “I’m at a loss for why he’s taking a hard line approach because it could jeopardize bipartisan cooperation,” says Newman.

To learn more, sign on for a free NCSL webinar, Online Voter Registration: The Bipartisan Trend in Elections.  Experts from Pew Charitable Trusts and Virginia’s state board of elections will discuss the until-now cooperative political environment for online voter registration, its speedy adoption among states, and possible pitfalls to avoid. And it will tackle the latest question: How can security be managed so hackers don't get into the system?

 Wendy Underhill staffs NCSL’s Redistricting and Elections Task Force and covers election policy.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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