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New Mobile Voter Registration Technology Could Bridge Online-Offline Gap

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, February 14 2012

Photo: Shutterstock

A new technology with creators who quietly sought approval in Nevada months in advance of the caucuses there may be paving one route to easier voter registration.

Rather than try to navigate the tricky legal waters involved in digitally submitting a signed voter registration form to state or county officials, this technology does an end-around in an almost steampunk fashion. As with solutions tried in the past, would-be voters fill out their voter registration form on a touch-screen mobile device, using the screen to create a signature. Here's where it gets interesting: Rather than try to use the signature itself, this software turns it into instructions for a remote-controlled pen to carry out, actually signing a printed form on the voter's behalf.

Nevada's deputy secretary of state for elections, Scott Gilles, told me that he was contacted in late summer or early fall by a company called Verafirma, a Silicon Valley-based operation known to us at techPresident for tech they deployed in 2010 to collect ballot initiative signatures in California. Gilles said this group reached out to discuss their new technology and to seek guidance on whether it could work in Nevada. (Verafirma also tested out earlier, electronic signature tech for voter registration in one county in California.)

"They sent us a demo video of this technology, told us how it worked and asked us for confirmation that these types of voter identification would be accepted in Nevada," Gilles said. "Our response was there's no legal basis in Nevada to reject the application."

Verafirma co-founder Jude Barry said that this new technology, which translates a would-be voter's signature on a touch screen into instructions for a remote-controlled pen, is the product of a new company, Allpoint Voter Services. He declined to elaborate further.

Earlier this month, Barack Obama's re-election effort released this page, a largely overlooked call for Nevadans to register to vote using their mobile device.

That technology, as described by the Obama campaign, goes something like this: Follow a link on a touch-screen phone or tablet, fill out a form on the phone, sign using the touch screen, and submit the form. The motion of the user's signature is recorded, and then controls "the movements of an actual pen that will place your signature on your printed voter registration form for you."

The terms of service for the app represent Allpoint Voter Services as providing services related to the Obama application.

"Allpoint Voter Services, Inc. ("Us" or "We") provides the and site and various related services (collectively, the "site") to you, the user, subject to your compliance with all the terms, conditions, and notices contained or referenced herein (the "Terms of Use"), as well as any other written agreement between us and you," begin the terms of service, which are available by clicking a link at the bottom of the Obama for America site as it appears on a mobile browser.

Obama campaign officials declined to comment.

How are these voter registrations acceptable? Gilles says that because the form arrives at the Secretary of State's office with an ink signature, there's no way to tell if a human hand or a robot guided the pen.

"The system that's being implemented is going to result in our county clerks receiving a voter registration form with a wet signature on it," Gilles said. "They're not going to be able to verify how that signature was produced."

But if the signature that winds up on record is notably different from the signature the voter makes in person at the polling place, that person might have to verify their identity by showing a photo ID, Gilles said.

The Obama campaign quietly rolled out their initiative just a few days before the launch of a new domestic voter-registration initiative to improve digital access to voter registration forms in the U.S. and the release of a Pew Center on the States report finding that one in eight active voter registrations is inactive or inaccurate. It would be difficult to argue that this type of technology would help that problem — the forms still arrive at the Nevada Secretary of State's office as pieces of paper to be ironically re-digitized, another opportunity for mistakes to happen — but it might help address another issue discussed in the Pew report: One in four people who are eligible to vote are not actually registered.

7:07 p.m. — This post has been corrected to note that the Pew study found that one in four people who are eligible to vote are not registered.