Expanding Opportunities to Register to Vote Online

By Marissa Liebling, Rosemarie Clouston June 24, 2016
keyboard_cc_license_roo_reynolds
(Roo Reynolds/Creative Commons)

This post was originally published on American Constitution Society for Law and Policy’s ACSBlog.

While 38 states and the District of Columbia have created, or are creating, opportunities for their residents to register to vote online, only a handful have online systems that are fully accessible to all their residents. Most states’ online voter registration (OVR) systems require individuals to input their driver’s license or state-issued ID card numbers in order to use the system, as they pull a voter’s signature from those state records. These requirements reduce the benefits of OVR and disproportionately exclude traditionally underrepresented communities—including minorities, low-income individuals, the elderly and young people—from registering online. The convenience and efficiency of OVR should be available to all of a state’s residents, regardless of whether they have a state-issued ID card.

As our busy modern lives increasingly rely on the internet for everything from paying taxes to registering children for school, online voter registration is a quick and convenient way to help voters take the first step to engage in the electoral process. Further, in some states the online deadline is later than the deadline for voters mailing their applications, which expands an individual’s opportunity to register to vote. Communities of color, seniors, young people, and individuals with low incomes are all less likely to possess driver’s licenses, as demonstrated by states’ own estimates (600,000 registered voters in Texas, as one example). Fair elections call for equal access to registration procedures, including online voter registration.

Two states—Pennsylvania and Kentucky—have recently taken steps to make their OVR systems more convenient and inclusive, and serve as examples for other states.

In March 2016, less than a year after Pennsylvania launched OVR, the state upgraded its system to allow individuals to submit their voter registration applications online by uploading an image of their signature. When the OVR system launched in August 2015, only individuals with a Pennsylvania-issued driver’s license or state ID card (collectively, PennDOT ID) could submit their registration application entirely online. Individuals without a PennDOT ID were mailed a signature form to complete the registration process. As of June 15, 2016, 9,040 Pennsylvanians have already successfully used this new signature upload option.

In order to obtain high-quality signatures, Pennsylvania adopted the same technology used by banks for digital images of signatures, like a check endorsement. Individuals may sign their name on a plain piece of paper and take a photograph with their smartphone or other device to upload to their application. According to Deputy Secretary for Elections and Administration Marian Schneider:

Pennsylvania prioritized this feature because it is very important to us that every eligible voter has an easy and convenient way to submit a complete voter registration application electronically. Since launch, almost 10,000 voters have used this feature and that’s 10, 000 fewer pieces of paper that counties have to process.

For those who cannot use this signature upload option, the state still offers to send a form that can be signed and returned to the county elections office, as is explained in more detail in the Lawyers’ Committee’s report Online Voter Registration: Accessible for All?

Launched in March 2016, Kentucky’s new OVR system also allows individuals who do not have a Kentucky-issued driver’s license or state ID card (collectively, Kentucky ID) to submit applications entirely online. At the end of the registration process, applicants are given two options: they may provide their Kentucky ID number to transmit a signature already on file or they may provide their own electronic signature. Kentucky’s new portal provides other important services, including the ability to look up registration status and polling place information. According to Secretary of State Allison Grimes:

Online voter registration has transformed Kentucky’s elections. In just a few short months, we have seen nearly 100,000 Kentuckians use the new portal. More than 2,000 18-year-olds have used the portal to register to vote for the first time! Current voters are thrilled to learn that the process to make changes to their registration is now easier than ever.

In the three months since the system launched, 21,745 Kentuckians have used the portal to register to vote or update their registration online, with 5,300 applicants providing their own signature by signing on a touchscreen or touchpad using a finger or stylus.

Most states require a signature during voter registration for use in other parts of the voting process. While the transfer of signatures on file with motor vehicles offices is convenient, it should not be—and does not need to be—the only means to gather signatures for OVR.

Online voter registration is proven to provide multiple benefits. Ensuring that OVR is widely accessible serves only to increase these benefits—including cost savings for states and counties. Offering online voter registration regardless of identification possessed benefits election administrators as well as voters. Online registration eliminates the need to decipher handwriting and to manually enter registration information from paper forms, which can result in typos and entry errors. Thus online registration both greatly reduces the costs associated with processing applications and reduces errors in voter data for more accurate, updated records. The more applications that are completed online, the greater the cost savings and other administrative benefits for the state and counties.

As Kentucky and Pennsylvania demonstrate, allowing all citizens to register to vote online, regardless of what ID they possess, benefits voters, election officials and taxpayers. Other states should look to Pennsylvania and Kentucky, as well as Delaware, Minnesota and Washington, DC, as examples when seeking to expand OVR—and reap these benefits—in their states.

Marissa Liebling is Project Vote’s legislative director and Rosemarie Clouston is the national coordinator for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.