Online Voter Registration: A New and Inexpensive Way to Register Voters?
Voter registration is becoming easier and more accessible for voting eligible citizens in several states through the growing trend of online voter registration. This new election reform has the potential to be a cost-effective method of enfranchising more Americans, especially as applied to the electronic transmission of applications through voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act.
“You can register online for selective service, we pay our taxes online,” said Michigan Rep. Lesia Liss, D-Warren in a recent Detroit News report. “So why not make online voter registration a priority as well?”
Liss hopes to add Michigan to the list of states that enacted online voter registration policies in recent years with the introduction of state House Bill 4589. Currently, three states – Arizona, Washington, and Kansas—practice online voter registration. Five more – Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Oregon, and Utah – enacted laws in 2009 that should be implemented this year. And at least one more, California, is expected to implement online voter registration by 2012.
Electronic registration is purportedly cost-effective: in Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, an electronic application reportedly costs about $0.03, compared to $0.83 per paper registration. With only 77 percent of voting eligible Americans registered to vote in 2008, online voter registration may be a welcome reform, particularly for young Americans who are simultaneously the most likely to have Internet access (88%) but least likely to be registered to vote (61%), according to a 2009 Project Vote memo by consultant, Jody Herman.
However, there are some drawbacks to online voter registration. Not everyone has Internet access at home, and the likelihood of a person having access in the home is related to income and education-attainment. Only 39 percent of those with no high school degree report having Internet at home, and 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%). Latinos, in particular, demonstrate low voter registration rates at 12 percentage points behind the voting eligible population in addition to their greater likelihood to lack of Internet access.
“An additional problem is that online voter registration systems that require an online registrant to have an existing signature in a state database—such as in a driver’s license database and/or state voter registration database–will further limit the accessibility of an online voter registration system to disadvantaged groups,” according to Herman.
But where electronic voter registration has the potential to aid in helping to enfranchise underrepresented low-income and minority citizens is at voter registration agencies acting in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, including Motor Vehicle Divisions and public assistance agencies. Electronic, “paperless” voter registration processes can be developed, which would seamlessly integrate and transfer existing electronic data collection systems to election officials. This way, a citizen may also apply for voter registration status while applying for a driver’s license or filling out paperwork for public assistance benefits by having their information quickly and efficiently submitted in electronic form to elections officials. This could reduce costs, minimize errors, and increase the likelihood that voter registration services mandated under the NVRA are consistently offered to clients.
“The more people who are registered to vote, the more people we can get to vote. That’s really what we want,” Macomb County, Michigan clerk Carmella Sabaugh told the Detroit News. “We want more people to be registered, so they can vote and be represented in government.”