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The Sometimes Sad State of Voter Registration in America

Automatic and online voter registration have proven to increase voter rolls and save money, yet many states are still using paper.

A campaign volunteer attempts to register voters in downtown Raleigh, N.C.
(AP/Gerry Broome)
The United States takes great pride in being one of the largest and longest running modern democracies in the world. Yet when it comes to having a good voter registration system, we have a long way to go.

Today’s voter registration systems vary widely in terms of quality and effectiveness from state to state, according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice. A dozen states still use paper forms to register voters, making their systems costly to run and prone to errors. The states that do use technology differ in how they use computers to register voters, often making the system less effective than it could be.

Until Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, citizens had to seek out the necessary forms to register. The “Motor Voter” law, as it came to be called, made the process easier by putting the forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and requiring agency personnel to ask drivers if they wanted to register. But many countries -- including Australia, Chile, France, Germany and Sweden -- make it easier than that to sign up with automatic voter registration.

Two states -- Oregon and California -- recently passed laws to automatically register people to vote when they get or renew their license at the DMV -- unless they opt out. But just this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a presidential candidate, vetoed a bill to enact automatic voter registration in his state. At least 15 other states, the District of Columbia and Congress have proposed similar legislation.

Though the push for automatic voter registration is just getting started, online voter registration has taken off in recent years. In 2010, 17 states were registering voters online. In 2015, that number has grown to more than 35 states -- though New Jersey isn't one of them because Christie also vetoed online voter registration. 

The Brennan Center report, “Voter Registration in a Digital Age,” shows that technology can impact voter registration in three ways.

First, technology boosts registration rates.

In one data sample, 14 of 16 states with online registration saw sustained or increased registration rates through the 2014 election. Pennsylvania quadrupled and Rhode Island doubled their voter registration when they switched from paper to computers.

Computer systems are also more accurate.

In 2008, nearly 3 million registered voters couldn't vote because of problems related to their paper registrations. States that use computers instead of hand-written paper forms have seen “significant reductions” in mistakes and report fewer instances where voters are prevented from voting because of incorrect or incomplete information.

Switching from paper to computers also saves money.

Most of the savings come from reduced labor costs as workers no longer need to perform data entry and shuffle paperwork. Delaware, for example, saved $200,000 in labor costs, and Washington state, saved $176,000 by switching to online voter registration.

The technology needed to create an automatic or online registration system is relatively straightforward, involving a database and a means to transfer the data from the DMV to the state’s election office. According to the report, states spent less than $300,000 on average to switch to digitize their voter registration systems.

Although costs are a minor problem, there are other, more troubling issues -- some computer-related, some not -- to updating voter registration.

Many states are actively working to making voting more difficult. Since the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers in 33 states have introduced at least 113 bills that would restrict access to registration and voting, according to the Brennan Center. Nearly half of the bills are aimed at establishing voter ID requirements or tightening pre-existing ones. 

In addition, while more than one third of all registrations are filed at DMVs, not everyone drives. According to Politifact, as many as 1 in 10 voting-age Americans do not have a government-issued ID such as a driver’s license, and online registration requires applicants to use their driver’s license identification number.

The use of registration technology also varies from state to state. All states require a signature when a voter registers. While some states have made this process electronic, others still require a person to sign a physical piece of paper, which he or she then has to either scan or mail to the elections office. State DMVs are also inconsistent about when they transfer registration data. Some send it over in batches, which can affect performance, while other state DMVs do it in real-time.

Myrna Perez, a co-author of the report and director of the Voting Rights and Election Project at the Brennan Center, said the use of technology to register voters continues to grow and she expects the states that still use paper will be moving to digital registration soon.

“The proof is in the trajectory we have seen so far,” she said. Modernization is also occurring in both red and blue states, she added. “I think that’s because these reforms are appealing no matter what; the technology practically pays for itself in savings.”

So, would up-to-date digital registration systems increase voter turnout? It’s tempting to look at the past results and conclude it hasn’t made a difference yet; voter turnout declined slightly in the 2012 presidential election compared to 2008. But Perez pointed out that as more states improve their registration systems, it could free up the time and money needed for other efforts to bring voters to the polls.

“If the registration process is smoother, easier and more inclusive, then more resources can be targeted on turnout,” she said.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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