Allowing Voters to Register Online

By Wendy Underhill | Vol . 24, No. 7 / February 2016

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Not a single voter registered online before 2002.
  • Currently, 130 million eligible voters can create or update their records online, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
  • Online voter registration is often adopted to improve voter list accuracy.

The biggest trend in election administration in the last few years has been online voter registration. In 2008, only two states allowed eligible citizens to complete a voter registration application online by using personal data stored at the motor vehicle agency. Now, 30 states plus the District of Columbia do—and at least two more are teed up to join the crowd.

State Action

As the online voter registration trend has developed, legislators have considered several big questions along the way.

Digital Divide. In 2008, when only Arizona and Washington offered online voter registration, the concern was over people who didn’t have access to computers. What would they do? The answer: Make online registrations a supplement to, not a replacement for, registrations by mail or at the motor vehicle bureau (the most common way people register). In all states, online registration remains an option and is never the rule.

Costs. By 2010, when Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Oregon and Utah introduced online registration, the questions had turned to costs. Would going online save taxpayer money or end up costing more? The answer: Setup cost for a mid-size state is roughly $250,000. After that, states and local jurisdictions may save money on every registration transaction because they don’t have to pay to re-key information. (A Pew study found that in Arizona, for example, registrations on paper cost 83 cents each to process; an online transaction costs 3 cents.)

Politics. When California, Maryland, Nevada, New York and South Carolina had joined the group in 2012, the question turned political. Which party benefits? The answer: Neither. Online registrations are in proportion to the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state, and are not skewed either way.

Security. Security was the main concern when Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia came aboard by 2014. Although it’s hard to say anything is absolutely secure, states have built in many security measures. These include data encryption, the use of data logs that automatically flag unusual activity, multi-screen applications and “captcha” (distorted text) boxes.

Legislative Action. When Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia and the District of Columbia turned on their systems in 2015, the question officials asked most often was technical. Do we need legislation, or can we just do it? The answer: States are working it out in their own ways. Alabama, Alaska, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Vermont starting using their systems in 2015 and early 2016 without legislation. Indeed, six of the earlier adopters did it without legislation, although at least one legislature—Minnesota’s—followed up with authorizing legislation that defined the technical parameters for the online registration system. Lawmakers in Florida, New Mexico and Oklahoma took the more typical approach—legislative authorization—when saying “yes” to online voter registration last year.

Opponents of online voter registration generally are concerned about the costs and security of the systems. Some fear that online registration will lead to online voting, although these are separate policy items. Others are concerned about fraud, or whether minorities would have equal access due to the digital divide. More recently, some disability advocates are questioning states on whether their systems are accessible to all.

Officials are working to address such concerns, however. According to a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, states are offering forms in multiple languages, adapting systems for mobile devices, enhancing security features and permitting citizens who don’t have driver’s licenses to register online.

Looking ahead, it’s likely more states will offer online registration. Among other groups, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommends online voter registration, as does the Republican National Lawyers Association. In the states that already have online systems, lawmakers will tweak them in the never-ending quest to make them better.

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