electionlineWeekly: APIs, Custom URLs Facilitate OVR Registration Drives

[Image via marketingland]

The latest electionlineWeekly takes a look at new tools that third-party registration drives can use to harness the value of online voter registration (OVR) and leave troublesome paper forms behind. Mindy Moretti has the story:

In a world of smartphones, tablets and online voter registration (OVR), there is one place where paper still reigns as king — third-party voter registration organizations.

Although some of the leaders in the field, like Rock the Vote, no longer utilize paper applications, many organizations still do for a variety of reasons ranging from the lack of reliable Internet connections at events, mining the non-sensitive registrant data to conduct direct voter contact for get-out-the-vote efforts and in most cases, paper ballot applications are typically faster for registrants to use.

However, according to Jen Tolentino, director of policy and civic tech at Rock the Vote,  there are disadvantages to paper registrations, both for voter registration organizations and election administrators to paper applications, most top of mind is data entry and applicant errors (i.e. accidently skipping fields, difficult to read handwriting, etc.).

Now, a handful of states are coming up with solutions in an effort to streamline the process and maybe save a tree or two in the process.

“In states that take a connected voter registration approach…third parties are able to develop secure, paperless mobile applications that address many of the issues raised by paper and the challenges of OVR for third parties,” Tolentino said.

The states, that include California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Washington and Virginia either provide third-party organizations with unique URLs for online sign-ups or an application programming interface (API).

  • California offers unique URLs and an API to pre-populate data to their website for select groups;
  • Colorado offers unique URLs and some non-sensitive registration data;
  • Pennsylvania offers an API and collected e-signatures for third-parties to build applications;
  • Virginia offers an API for third-parties to build applications and unique URLs; and
  • Washington offers unique URLs, data pre-population to website, and contact information

“We like this service because we are guaranteed to get the application for each voter. And they get registered much faster than relying on the paper forms,” Lori Augino, director of elections for the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, explained. “Plus, the accuracy is improved. Applicants standing outside at an event filling out a paper form are not always as careful. Applicants rarely make mistakes when entering their own information online. It saves money too. Processing online applications over the paper forms saves at least $1.25 per application.”

Augino said Washington’s system was designed to allow for maximum flexibility. They only need to be sure to issue a unique code that is appended to each URL so that the office knows that the registration source was a specific voter registration drive.

According to Kafia Hosh, communications officer with King County Elections, the reaction from third-party groups has been positive, especially among the groups that have websites and social media.

“We are aware of 10 organizations that used the URL program in 2018,” Hosh explained. “Through our Voter Education Fund, we inform community-based organizations about the URL program. In 2018, nine of these organizations used the URL program. And one organization that wasn’t a part of the Voter Education Fund also used the program.”

Hosh added that were some organizations that weren’t interested in using the URL program, stating that the communities they serve do not use online methods.

In California, the secretary of state’s office not only provides unique URLs to outside third-party registration groups, they also provide those unique URLs to other governmental agencies. Colleges and universities throughout the state also used the unique URLs and are then able to participate the Ballot Bowl Voter Registration Competition.

For governmental agencies, the unique URLs allows the office to capture the number of online registrations submitted that were referred to the secretary of state from the outside agency. This allows for the secretary of state to report NVRA statistics to the legislature.

“In 2018, five counties adopted the Voter’s Choice Act, moving to a vote center based election model. Every vote center was required to provide ‘same-day’ voter registration (known as conditional voter registration in state election law),” explained Sam Mahood, press secretary for the secretary of state’s office. “These counties used unique URLs to track online voter registrations that occurred at vote centers.”

According to Tolentino, while OVR is now widely available, making the process easier for voters to register themselves, third-party voter registration efforts often struggle to effectively leverage state websites. This leads to either a continued reliance on paper applications in the field or some voters beginning the process but never becoming fully registered from digital efforts.

“Rock the Vote is leading the effort to address the challenges facing voter registration for third parties, promoting the adoption of a secure, connected voter registration approach that would allow approved third parties to “drop off” complete, electronic voter registration applications.” Tolentino said.

This approach has already been implemented in Pennsylvania and Virginia and there is a common data format available for the electronic transfer of voter registration records. Tolentino said a connected voter registration approach would result in the following benefits:

  • Enable approved third-parties to develop seamless technology to securely register voters online and in the field, eliminating the majority of paper applications and the need for a constant internet connection;
  • Facilitate election administrators’ ability to easily audit voter registration applications, immediately identifying issues with specific applications and third-party groups;
  • Take advantage of NIST’s common data format for Voter Records Interchange to increase scalability and national adoption;
  • Eliminate duplicative data entry by third-party groups, local election administrators, and voters; and
  • Ensure all voter registration applications are complete and submitted in the requested format.

California also offers an API, but at this time, only for Rock the Vote and one other third-party registration group. Washington is gearing up to launch its own API, VoteWA on May 28.

“The API allows for more fields to be prepopulated for the user,” Augino explained “For example, if a voter registration drive already has the applicant’s name and date of birth, they can prepopulate those fields for them so that they don’t have to re-enter that information. It’s even more user friendly for the voter. The URL for the API will be different because we will be using a different application and branding for our new voter tools.”

Obviously the use of unique URLs and APIs for third-party groups is still in the early stages and some states, while interested, are moving cautiously about the challenges they may face in implementation.

“I wouldn’t say that the secretary is skeptical about providing unique URLs to 3rd party OVR groups, just that he’s realistic about the challenges we could face in implementation,” explained Ben Petok, director of communications for the Minnesota secretary of state’s office. “Not only would we need to programming to collect the information on who uses the URL, but would almost certainly need a change in state law to accommodate the data practice issues around use of unique URLs for this purpose.”

Tolentino noted that using unique URLs/APIs would actually help states eliminate problems with late and incorrect registration forms that some states, like Tennessee, are trying to correct legislatively.

Under HB1079/SB971 fines of up to $10,000 dollars would be imposed on third-party organizations that pay people to conduct registration drives, and turn in more than 500 incomplete forms. It would also require groups to submit the forms within 10 days.

“The bill in Tennessee would place a huge burden on many voter registration organizations and significantly thwart all on-the-ground efforts,” Tolentino said. “If Tennessee is committed to ensuring they only receive complete and accurate voter registration forms, there are technical enhancements the state could make without punishing voter registration groups who are working tirelessly to reach all voters across the state.”

Whether or not you’re aware of it, custom URLs and APIs are now a standard part of the online experience. It’s great to see election officials and groups like Rock the Vote taking advantage of these tools in an effort to increase access to registration without sacrificing accuracy. Thanks, as always, to Mindy and electionline.org for sharing the story; have a great weekend and stay tuned!

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