[Image via decorcentral]
With National Voter Registration Day just 4 days away, electionlineWeekly takes a look at the state of registration nationwide to see where we stand fifteen years after the first state, Arizona, launched the online registration era [an (apologetic) note: Please forgive the excruciating pun in the title – it’s a throwback to another report on voter registration by electionline in 2005]:
The year was 2002. Facebook was just a dream in a college student’s eye. The president was four years from being able to send his first Tweet and most of the Stranger Things kids hadn’t even been born yet.
And even though only just over half of the population had access to the Internet at home, the state of Arizona boldly stepped into the abyss and became the first state in the country to allow residents to register to vote online.
Now, 15 years later, as we approach National Voter Registration Day, and even though paper is all the talk these days, there are more ways for people to get registered to vote than ever before and most those ways don’t involve paper at all.
Online Voter Registration
Since launching in 2002, online voter registration in Arizona has been the most popular method of registration. Since 2010, the state has registered approximately 1.8 million people online. The state has also saved approximately $1.5 million dollars.
Currently, Arizona’s online voter registration system is maintained as an overnight batching process for voter registrations applications that were received from the prior day. Matt Roberts, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office said that although this process works successfully, they would prefer and recommend to other states a real-time submission of voter registration applications.
“As we move forward with technology advancements, we look for ways to maintain the most secure online system while also providing ease of usability for voters and our state’s voter registration officials,” Roberts said. “One of our future enhancements may include a real-time interface between MVD and our statewide voter registration database, providing faster validation checks and a more streamlined process for changes/updates to existing voter registration records.
As of September 2017, 35 states and the District of Columbia offer online voter registration Tennessee was the most recent state to join the growing list.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an additional three states have approved legislation to enact OVR.
But what about those 12 hold outs?
“Some of these states have introduced and debated online voter registration this year, and others have not. It’s possible that last year’s elections, with concerns raised about cybersecurity, may have made a few states pause,” explained Wendy Underhill, program director, Elections and Redistricting, NCSL. “Even though online registration does not link to online voting, there may have been some understandable hesitation to push it in 2017.”
Underhill said that she’s heard informally that a few stats may look at it next year, but as she pointed out, introductions don’t necessarily lead to enactments.
She also noted that about the same number of states offer some form of early, in-person voting as offer OVR.
“And my colleagues at NCSL who cover issues besides elections say it’s not uncommon for a trend to be adopted by about 2/3 of the states, and then not move further,” Underhill said. “It’s the nature of federalism, that states don’t all move together.”
Automatic Voter Registration
In 2016, Oregon became the first state in the nation to implement automatic voter registration. To-date, nine states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, although only three have implemented it thus far.
But how exactly is automatic voter registration defined? NCSL’s Underhill said that’s been an issue.
“I’d say that it is tricky to define the difference between automatic voter registration and a well-run motor voter process, where registration applications are automatically sent from the motor vehicle agency to the voter registration authorities,” Underhill said. “It’s the difference between opt-out, and opt-in, and about semantics.”
Oregon is the only state that literally automatically registers voters at the DMV and then gives the registrant the choice to opt-out at a later date. All the other states and DC allow a potential voter to opt-out at the point of service.
“We expect we’ll see at least a small handful of states consider ‘automatic voter registration’ again in 2018, even though the definitions may vary,” Underhill said. “Mostly, the sponsors have been Democrats, but not always. Illinois’ recently signed bill was bipartisan, and has a model for implementation that other states might like to review.”
Katy Hubler with Democracy Research, LLC added that as more states have looked at AVR legislation their concept of what automatic voter registration could look like has evolved.
“I think in the beginning everyone thought of it as something that had to involve the DMV, and possibly only the DMV. People forget sometimes that the NVRA covers a lot of other agencies as well, and more recent legislation and conversations about AVR have included other voter registration agencies, if they are able to sufficiently verify citizenship status and the like.”
Hubler noted that Alaska’s process is worth highlighting.
“They found that they would catch more people to register by using the permanent fund dividend application than if they used the DMV as a source for automatic registrations, so that’s what their AVR process is tied to.”
Election/Same Day Registration
Currently, 14 states and the District of Columbia offer same day voter registration. Hawaii has approved legislation but it’s not slated for implementation until 2018. Underhill thinks that election/same day registration may be the “next big thing” in voter registration.
“Typically this idea has been championed only by Democrats, but NCSL has had recent inquiries from Republicans. If technology can be used to assure that Election Day voters are indeed eligible and cannot vote twice, then security concerns are allayed,” Underhill said. “Recently I heard a nonpartisan person refer to Election Day registration as a fail-safe option.”
It’s amazing to think that online voter registration – which has really gained steam in the states over the last few years – was first pioneered 15 years ago. It makes me excited to think what innovations are launching today that electiongeeks will marvel at in 2032. [The only thing that’s certain is that I’ll make the “assorted rolls” joke again. I’m not sorry.]