Dragging voter registration kicking/screaming into the 21st century

While Republican Secretaries of State in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida desperately try to limit access to voting by aggressively purging registration rolls, forward-looking voters’ rights advocates are seeking ways to bring our antiquated voter-registration system into the 21st century.

Our voting system is deeply flawed. The current system for voter registration was designed for the 19th century. It’s a paper-based system that is easily undermined by illegible handwriting and inconvenience. The system often leaves millions of eligible voters off the rolls or contains errors in their records—such as misspelled names or mistyped addresses—that prevent them from voting or having their votes counted.

The real world

I recently encountered exactly these problems. As a volunteer for a local ballot initiative, I was going through petition signatures that had been called invalid by state officials. My job was to review the information on the petition, and check it against the state’s on-line voter database. In one instance, the signature on the petition was “Melinda Short” [not her real name]. I found no Melinda Short among the registered voters. However, after a bit of creative sleuthing, I found “George Short” at the same address, and using the “also in household” feature of the database, I discovered a “Melinda Jacksonshort” [with no space between Jackson and Short—an obvious typo]. Sure enough, when I searched on Jacksonshort, she was a registered voter. Unfortunately, when Melinda goes to vote in November, she’s probably going to be turned away, because they’ll be looking for Melinda Short, and she won’t be in the book.  Welcome to the 19th century.

A real plan

But there is hope, if politicians and citizens can find a way to refocus our attention on enfranchising, rather than disenfranchising American citizens. The Brennan Center for Justice, a highly respected, non-partisan organization has released a plan to modernize our voter registration system.  The plan has four central features:

Automated Registration: State election officials automatically register consenting eligible citizens by electronically transmitting reliable information from other government lists.

Portability: Once an eligible citizen is on a state’s voter rolls, she remains registered and her records move with her so long as she continues to reside in that state.

Safety Net: Eligible citizens can correct errors on the voter rolls before and on Election Day.

Online Access: Voters can register, check and update their registration records through a secure and accessible online portal.

Real progress

Will it work? It already is working, says the Brennan Center—but not everywhere. Fortunately, the 2002 Help America Vote Act [HAVA] established the building blocks for a modernized voter registration system. Under HAVA, states put in place computerized voting rolls. More recently, many of those states have taken additional steps.

In recent years, at least 21 states have moved forward to automate voter registration at DMV’s. At least 17 states electronically transfer voter registration data from the DMV to election authorities. Secure online voter registration is now available in seven states, and is under development in at least five more.

In some states, the process is entirely paperless; in others, officials use paper forms solely to obtain some information, like signatures. Secure online voter registration is now available in seven states, and is under development in at least five more. In the past two years alone, eleven states have developed paperless systems, and many others have begun to consider reform.

You can get all the details, plus see where your state stacks up along the spectrum by viewing  the Brennan Center’s highly informative power point.  [ Download presentation [pdf]

Bottom line, paperless voter registration yields substantial benefits for voters and government. The Brennan Center reports these key findings:

 Paperless voter registration is cost-effective and saves states millions of dollars each year

  • It cost Arizona less than $130,000 and Washington just $279,000 to implement both online voter registration and automated voter registration at DMVs.
  • Delaware’s paperless voter registration at DMVs saves election officials more than $200,000 annually on personnel costs, above the savings they reaped by partially automating the process in the mid-1990s. Officials anticipate further savings
  • Online and automated DMV registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. The county spends 33¢ to manually process an electronic application, and an average of 3¢ using a partially automated review process, compared to 83¢ for a paper registration form.

 Paperless voter registration is more accurate and reliable than paper forms

  • Officials consistently confirm that paperless registrations produce fewer errors than paper forms and reduce opportunities for fraud.
  • A 2009 survey of incomplete and incorrect registrations in Maricopa County, Arizona found that electronic voter registrations are as much as five times less error-prone than their paper-based counterparts.

 Paperless voter registration increases voter registration rates

  • DMV voter registrations have nearly doubled in Washington and Kansas, and increased by even more in Rhode Island.
  • Seven times as many South Dakotans submitted voter registrations at DMVs after the state implemented an automated system.
  • Registration rates among 18-24 year-old citizens rose from 28 to 53 percent after Arizona introduced online and automated registration.

Voter registration modernization should not be a partisan issue. Of course, in the wake of so many attempts at voter suppression in the 2012 election cycle, you’d think that dragging voter registration procedures into the 21st Century would be an equally contentious and politicized issue. So, it’s encouraging to note that the Brennan Center reports this bit of good news:

“In a field often subject to partisan bickering, it is noteworthy that state voter registration innovations have earned praise from Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as from election officials and agency personnel.”

Unfortunately, I live in Missouri, where we have apparently complied with HAVA, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten. We have a Democratic Governor, and a Democratic Secretary of State, and we’re not a swing state in the 2012 election, so, what are we waiting for? Our Republican-dominated legislature, perhaps?

What’s happening in your state?