Transactions of every kind are moving online and have been for a while. ATMs appeared in New York in 1969 and you could bank online by the 1980s. It’s 2016 and in a world wired and wireless, voting and voter registration may be the last bastion ruled by pen and paper. Some say it’s one reason why a record number of Americans under 40 didn’t register and vote in the last midterm. Either way, that is changing, according to a new report from the election team at the Brennan Center for Justice, Voter Registration in a Digital Age – Update 2015.
More than half U.S. states now offer online voter registration (OVR). This compares to only six in 2010. In just the last year, eleven states launched OVR tools and two more are working on implementing OVR now.
The Brennan Center conducted extensive interviews with election officials and gathered data to track and chart the impact of this trend. Here are some highlights.
More accurate and faster: OVR mitigates common issues like illegible hand writing, unfamiliar name spellings, and data entry errors. Registrations are processed and put into the system faster and more accurately, including those now electronically transferred from DMV offices. (27 states now process license and registration changes electronically, without any paper used.)
Cost saving: Of the 29 states tracking cost, every one reported saving money. Washington state saved 25 cents per online registration. Counties in Washington, which are responsible for organizing voter rolls for elections, saved even more. Colorado reported the cost of processing online forms is 25% that of paper.
Popular with voters: Voters like online tools. In the first year of implementation, online registration accounts on average for 10% of registrations. The number grows from there each year. In Arizona, 46% of voters used online registration to register for the first time or to update their registration in 2010 and 2012, though this may be due partially to Arizona discouraging grassroots voter registration drives and having a high rejection rate of paper forms. Other studies show online tools are particularly popular with younger voters. In California 30 percent of the voters who registered online in 2012 were under 25 and those who did so were significantly more likely to turn out on Election Day.
Registration rates go up: The increase in rates is most notable when DMVs switch from paper to electronic voter registration. The Brennan Center’s 2010 study and subsequent analysis show voter registration rates doubling at DMVs once the changeover took place.
Online voter registration is limited and biased to populations with already higher voter registration rates. In all but Minnesota, Delaware and Missouri, only people with a valid driver’s license or state ID recorded at their DMV which contains their electronic signature can use it. Studies commonly show 10% of eligible voters don’t have the right ID, and those voters are disproportionately younger Americans and new citizens. As well, only a few states link to third party online voter registration tools like Rock the Vote used in grassroots voter registration. Linking to third party tools was a key recommendation of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration to help reach a broader audience.
Online voter registration brings a host of benefits to voters and election administrators alike. But what about voting itself? This is probably more important to this and future generations than the registration process. Is the trip to the polls sacrosanct? Is mail the best and only alternative? More on bringing the benefits of technology and what other states are doing on how we vote and how we get better information on what’s on the ballot next time.