May I See Your … Smartphone? Wisconsin Approves Digital Documents for ID


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Story by M. Mindy Moretti reprinted from the September 13, 2012 electionlineweekly

While many elections officials across the country are concerned about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to stay afloat because of the impact it may have on vote-by-mail and absentee voting, elections officials in Wisconsin are faced with another dilemma from the slow death of the mail.

No one mails anything anymore — including identifying documents like utility bills.
Faced with a growing number of people who receive and pay their bills exclusively online, recently, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board ruled that residents wishing to register to vote at the polls on election day may provide a poll worker with an electronic proof-of-residency via their smartphone.

“I can’t see the difference between being shown a screen with an identifying document or being shown a piece of paper,” said Judge Thomas Cane, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I think we’ve got to bring ourselves up to date.”

Staff of the GAB recommended that the board not implement the use of electronic documents, but it wasn’t because they disagree with the practice, it was all about timing.

“The staff supported the concept because there is no difference in the information that must be presented or recorded,” explained Kevin Kennedy, director of the GAB. “However, we wanted to get enough input from local election officials before instituting the change. “

Kennedy noted that while the change was being proposed more than two months before the November election, state and local elections officials as well as the public have been faced with a multitude of new elections laws in addition to 15 recalls within the past 18 months and there were simply concerns about one more new thing to face come November 6.

“That is a lot of change to absorb in a year and a half…” Kennedy said. “We also wanted to ensure that we understood and addressed all practical aspects of such a change, including any questions that poll workers might have about the new directive and the process of reviewing and accepting electronic proof of residence.”

Ultimately what the board determined is that an elector who is required to show proof of residence to support election-day registration may provide that information by presenting the required information to a poll worker by displaying the information on a smart phone, tablet or other computer screen–voters must provide their own electronic device, polling places will not have computers/tablets they can use. 

The poll worker needs to see that the document is one of the permitted types of proof of residence, is current and contains the voter’s full name and current address.  The poll worker must also see and record any unique number associated with the document such as a driver’s license number, financial institution account number or utility account number.

Kennedy said the GAB is adding information to its “Back to Basics” training program developed for November.  But even with the additional training, and ultimately the support of the GAB staff, some concerns remain.

“We have two primary concerns.  The first is that the poll worker diligently examine the electronic format document and record the required information,” Kennedy said. “The second is that the voter be cooperative and patient to ensure the poll worker does what is required.  Some clerks have also raised a concern about liability if poll worker accidentally drops a smart phone or tablet.”

In 2008, 462,392 registered to vote on Election Day in Wisconsin.  There also were 115,968 voters who registered in the municipal clerk’s office after the close of registration who also had to show proof of residence–a practice that would also allow electronic documentation.  With nearly 3 million people casting ballots in 2008 that essentially meant that one in five voters had to show their proof of residency to get a ballot.

That’s a lot of people and a lot of smartphones. Kennedy isn’t exactly sure of the impacts the new process will have on length of time a voter spends at the polls on Election Day, but he suspects it may slow down the process a bit.

“Our sense is it will slow the EDR  process down because we are emphasizing that the poll worker follow the same steps required with a paper document, but that it will require the voter to scroll through the phone to show each of the required elements,” Kennedy said. “However it will provide the opportunity to register and vote for individuals who neglected to bring along a paper document establishing their residence.”

Eight states and the District of Columbia offer same-day registration. While some of those states — Minnesota and Montana — do accept electronic proof-of residency, most of the states contacted truthfully hadn’t even thought about it.

“We don’t specifically address electronic documents in the law,” said Julie Flynn, director of elections for the state of Maine. “It hasn’t come up so I don’t think it has been an issue, but we can add this to a list of topics to consider for future legislative action.”

The question has come up in Iowa, but as the law is currently written, accepting electronic documents for same-day registration is a no-go.

“The Secretary of State’s office has provided guidance to our county auditors in our Election Administrator’s Handbook indicating that an actual physical document is required for proof of residency purposes under Iowa Code section 48A.7A [the election day registration statute],” explained Sarah Reisetter, director of elections for Iowa. “Our law specifically uses the word ‘document’ and we have concerns about whether our precinct election officials would be able to view the screen of a smart phone or be able to actually determine what ‘document’ was being viewed on a device they may be unfamiliar with using.”

Minnesota began accepting electronic forms of proof of residency in 2010.

“The reality is that many voters and most younger voters no longer use surface mail to receive bills for utility services,” said Joseph Mansky, Ramsey County, Minn. elections manager. “Electronic billing is the reality of life for a rapidly growing proportion of the population. We need to use the documents that are commonly in use.”

Mansky said that he doesn’t see a down side to using electronic “paperwork,” in fact he said that he would like to see more of the election process go in that direction.

As with anything new in the election field, there have been concerns expressed about whether or not allowing electronic documents could lead to instances of voter fraud. Kennedy, and Mansky in Minnesota, don’t really see that as an issue.

“Some folks have raised the specter of electronic manipulation of the documents, but this could be an issue with paper documents as well,” Kennedy said. “If people can Photoshop fake electronic documents, they can just as easily print them out, just as there was always the potential for fake paper documents to be created.  Proof of residence is just one component of ensuring the validity of a registration form.”

Voter ID
Three states — Arizona, Ohio and Virginia — require non-photo ID to cast a ballot while an additional handful of states request it, but don’t require it. Could the Wisconsin model be used for proof of identity?

“Our guidance on this issue is that a virtual copy of a utility bill or other form of ID would not suffice for satisfying the Virginia ID purposes,” explained Justin Riemer, deputy secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections. “However, a voter that has to vote provisionally for lack of ID can email a copy of the ID to the local electoral board and have his or her ballot count.”

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