Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Online Voter Registration Comes to California

Today California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced the debut of California's new paperless, online voter registration system. Eligible Californians can use this system to register for the first time or to update their voter registration record. At today's news conference, Secretary Bowen announced that already 3,000 applications had been submitted through the new online system since it went live twelve hours prior.

Today's Sacramento Bee features an excellent story about this development, quoting many of the people involved in bringing this system online. Below is my statement on behalf of the California Voter Foundation explaining the value of the new process as well as the risks that accompany any transition from a paper- to an online-based system.

Online Voter Registration Comes to California
Statement by Kim Alexander, President & Founder
of the California Voter Foundation

Today, California becomes the 12th state to implement paperless online voter registration.

Online voter registration enables California’s 23.7 million eligible citizens to more easily and accurately register to vote and maintain their voter registration records.

Arizona was the first state to implement online voter registration, in 2002, and today it is the predominant method used to register or update registration information in that state, utilizing a person’s driver’s license number and Department of Motor Vehicles’ signature on file to facilitate the transaction. Ten other states, mostly in the western U.S., have also implemented online voter registration, including Washington, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland and New York.

The promise of online voter registration is enormous. For many young people, completing the form online will be a much more user-friendly process.  Californians are mobile, and the law requires you to re-register every time you move.

Currently 6.5 million Californians are eligible but not registered to vote, comprising 27 percent of the state’s eligible population and placing our state’s rate of registration near the bottom among the states. The online system could change that by making it simple and convenient for people to register for the first time or to maintain their record, no longer requiring them to go to a post office to find a form, complete it long hand and mail it in. Potentially thousands of Californians will benefit from this new system in this election season alone.

For election officials, online registration will reduce the data-entry workload and result in more accurate voter registration records. Making it easier for people to update their registration record will also likely reduce the number of provisional ballots cast in California, which rates at the nation’s highest level.

However, online voter registration is not without its challenges. Moving a governmental process, particularly one as important and sensitive as registering to vote, from a paper- to an online-based platform exposes that process to a much wider, global array of risks and vulnerabilities.

At least three states have experienced problems with their online voter registration systems recently. A glitch in Oregon’s system shut that state’s process down in April, right before a voter registration deadline for the state’s Spring Primary. New York’s system crashed in August just before that state’s registration deadline for its Fall Primary. And last August, just before Arizona’s voter registration deadline, a storm system was blamed for temporarily taking down that state’s online system.

As the most populous state in the nation, California’s system is likely to encounter an unprecedented level of traffic, especially close to the October 22nd registration deadline.

Fortunately the paper system will remain in place for the foreseeable future, not only as a backup to the online system but also because not everyone can fully utilize the paperless online system since its use is limited to those who have a license or ID card with the DMV. (Those without a drivers license number can still use the new system to complete, print, sign and mail their registration form.)

It will be important for the Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles to monitor the new online system very carefully to ensure that transactions are conducted securely and privately, with routine security testing, and that contingency plans are in place in case there are problems.

A number of dedicated people working in the Secretary of State’s office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Legislature, county election offices and civic organizations have worked hard for years to get to this point and they are to be congratulated for reaching this milestone.

The possibilities are exciting, but the challenge is enormous. As California moves into this new era of modernized, online voter registration it will serve us well to reach out to other states and share our experiences, good and bad, and ensure states learn from each other, so that one day soon all U.S. citizens can register to vote online.