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Thousands of People Have Used Remote-Controlled Pens Over The Internet To Register To Vote

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, October 26 2012

Photo: Crownjewel82 / Flickr

While it's a drop in the bucket in numbers, this election cycle has seen one science-fiction like innovation in an area that might seem dry as dust, yet holds significance for the future of voter engagement: Voter registration. This year, more than 100,000 people have used remote-controlled pens over the Internet to sign and complete their voter-registration forms.

President Obama's re-election campaign and Rock the Vote have both used the new service from the five-person startup Allpoint Voter Services in Oakland, Calif. The Obama campaign made the service available through its GottaRegister.com Web site to voters in North Carolina, 10 other states and the District of Columbia. Campaign finance records show that the campaign spent almost $43,000 from August through last week to use the service. Allpoint provided the service to Rock the Vote for free so that they could prove that the model works and can scale, says company spokesman Jude Barry. He claims that the system could potentially process a million voter registration forms a month.

For now, the total number is a fraction of that, yet it's been used in all 50 states, he says. The system works by capturing the motion of an individual's signature on a filled-out voter registration form online through a tablet device. Allpoint's system transmits the captured data from the motion of the signature and sends that information over the internet to a pen, which then renders the individual's signature in ink on a paper voter registration form in Allpoint's offices in Oakland. The staff then mail those forms off to the relevant local elections boards within 72 hours. Allpoint uses federal voter registration forms, which all states are bound by law to accept. Allpoint has received written opinions on the acceptability of the forms and their wet signatures from the District of Columbia, Cook County, Ill., Minnesota, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Santa Clara County in California and Washington State. So far, no election authorities have challenged the validity of any of the submitted voter registration forms in any other jurisdiction, Barry says.

TechPresident first reported on tests of this system in February.

It's an interesting hack around the byzantine voter registration system in the United States that takes into consideration the needs and requirements of registrars and the existing legal system, but also tackles the problem from the end-user point of view of having to complete and send off paper forms. The process of making voters fill out bits of paper and finding an envelope and stamp to send off their information has historically stymied voter registration levels. (Earlier this, year in fact, the Pew Center on the States issued a report that said that a quarter of people in the United States who are eligible to vote were not registered.) This hack is meant to remove that process and have the company do it for them, while retaining the paper and the wet signature that state laws require.

"If you're asking people these days, particularly people under 40, to mail a piece of paper, which involves finding an envelope and finding a stamp, you're not going to get good results," he says.

Barry points to news articles about voter registration form completion rates and notes that other programs that ask voters to mail in the forms also have historically low completion rates. He claims that Allpoint's online system has an almost 84 percent completion rate.

"If you start the process with us, whether it's someone walking up to you, or someone sending you an e-mail link, or someone sending you a link through Facebook, our completion rate -- meaning people who actually get registered -- is 83.5 percent," he says.

He also claims that this system is more reliable, less labor intensive and more efficient than a volunteer-driven effort to register voters with in-person physical voter registration forms, and cheaper than paid voter registration drives, which can cost between $2 to $10 apiece.

"We started with the premise that we could help voter registration if we could make it easier for the user by using the touchscreen device, and getting rid of paper, but keeping it simple for the registrar, who is accustomed to using paper, and must legally accept the national voter registration form if it has a wet signature," Barry says. "We have now established a national, mobile, online registration system."

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