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Pew Survey Highlights Online Voter Registration Benefits and Lessons

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, January 9 2014

A new brief by the Pew Charitable Trusts based on a survey of thirteen states that have implemented online voter registration finds that the practice has reduced costs, improved the accuracy of voter rolls and the registration experience.

Pew surveyed 13 of the 15 states that have implemented some form of online voter registration, including California, New York, Colorado, South Carolina, Utah and Washington. Five additional states, including Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois and Hawaii, are in the process of implementing systems following the passage of legislation, the report notes, which would bring the total to 20 states accounting for over 100 million eligible voters or about 47 percent of all eligible voters in the country.

According to the survey responses, 12 of the 13 states "reported that cost cutting is one of the greatest benefits of these systems." The average cost to implement the system was $240,000 for 11 states, according to the survey, with no expenses reported in Kansas and $1.8 million reported in California. The report notes that with 900,000 Californians using the system when it launched a month before the 2012 general election, savings including the reduction of printing and postage costs amounted to $2.5 million, exceeding the cost of implementation.

In ten of the states, the adoption of online voter registration followed passage of legislation. "Two of the most common issues addressed in legislation were authority to transfer and use signatures on file with state motor vehicle agencies...and authority to eschew paper applications .. and conduct a voter registration transaction entirely electronically," the report notes.

In seven cases, the states' own technology staffs designed and built the systems, while three used outside vendors and three used a combination of both.

Four of the states have optimized their platforms for mobile access, with another planning to add the feature in 2014. "Two additional states cite mobile optimization as a primary goal for future upgrades to their systems," the report states.

All the states require registrants to have a record and signature on file with the motor vehicle agency or an equivalent agency. In five states, voters are notified in real-time if they are found to already be registered.

In twelve states, the report notes, the system has a real-time-connection with the motor vehicle agency to verify applicants' identities. Eight states submit data on registrations in real-time to local election officials. Of the five others that submit the information periodically, four do so electronically, while New York is the only one to do so using paper.

The survey also asked the states about the security of the systems, though some declined to respond to several of those questions.

However, none of the states reported a security beach, including Arizona, which has had a system for over a decade. "Seven states highlighted reduced opportunities for fraud as a major benefit of online voter registration," the report notes. Of the states that did respond, 11 confirmed they run their systems through secure networks and use audit logs to track any activity on the system and nine confirmed that they use encryption or anonymization tools.

Asked about areas for improvement, "four states experienced some challenges coordinating with their motor vehicle agencies and stressed the importance of clear communication between agencies."

"Election officials can process online registrations in a matter of seconds, saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle, while reducing errors and cleaning up the voter registration database," the report quotes Mark Thomas, chief deputy and director of elections for Utah. "Having an online voter registration system is a no-brainer—users love it, election officials love it, and taxpayers love it."

Scott Gilles, deputy secretary for elections in Nevada, notes that the state "doubled its new registrations prior to the 2012 election when online voter registration became available statewide for the first time."

Among the public, 65 percent of registered voters support online voter registration, the report states, citing an upcoming report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.