Online Voter Registration: Good for States, Good for Voters
Peter Martin

Peter Martin

Voting Rights Defender Project

Online Voter Registration: Good for States, Good for Voters 
August 11, 2020

Availability of Online Voter Registration Has Grown Significantly Since its 2002 Inception

In 49 states and the District of Columbia, citizens who are eligible to vote must register with the state before they can vote.1 Traditionally, voters were required to register by submitting paper forms by mail or in person at an election office—but in the last two decades, a growing number of states have allowed voters to register by submitting forms via the internet. Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to register online. Two states are in the process of implementing online registration.Given the security and accuracy of online voter registration, where available, LDF encourages eligible voters to take advantage of its convenience and security to register to vote.

Online voter registration was first offered in 2002, and a decade ago only three states allowed voters to register online.3 Because online voter registration is relatively new, many voters are unfamiliar with it or even unaware that it is available in their states. Further, many state online registration systems are connected to that state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), meaning voters who wish to register online must already have a state-issued driver license or similar identification. And many states’ registration websites are inaccessible to people with certain disabilities or are only presented in English, functionally excluding eligible voters who only speak other languages. These hurdles, as well as the fact that about a dozen states do not offer online voter registration at all, make online registration unavailable to many eligible voters.

But online voter registration is an important tool in the effort to make voting more accessible. Many states clearly recognize this, as they have made online voter registration more available and accessible to eligible voters each year. Millions of eligible voters who have not yet registered to vote in their state of residence may now easily register online. Especially while the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts normal life, eligible voters who wish to register to vote may find that registering online is their safest and easiest option.

Advantages of Online Voter Registration

Online voter registration has gained widespread popularity over the last decade. As more states adopted online registration systems and found them suitable, online voter registration has been largely uncontroversial.

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic likely to pose health risks across the country, online voter registration will be critical to ensuring high voter turnout in the November 2020 election. Online voter registration allows citizens with internet access—whether on computers, tablets, or phones—to register to vote without having to expose themselves or others to health risks. Further, many of the government offices where citizens can register to vote in person were closed for many weeks this spring, severely limiting the ability to register in person and making online registration relatively more accessible and attractive.

Even under normal circumstances, but especially during the pandemic, election experts have promoted online voter registration for the following reasons:

  • Cost efficiency. According to a 2019 report by the Brennan Center, “[e]very state that has modernized registration has saved money.” Recent experiences by states across the country show that the costs involved in developing and implementing online voter registration are modest, and they pay for themselves quickly. In some places that have implemented online registration, per-voter registration processing costs have fallen by 95%.

 

  • Increased registration rates—and possibly higher turnout. Washington and Kansas, two of the first states to adopt online voter registration, saw registration transactions through DMVs double after they implemented online systems. While DMV registrations include in-person registrations, the rate of increase in registrations through DMVs after the implementation of online registration indicates approximately how many new registrants are registering online. South Dakota saw an even more dramatic increase: its registration rate increased over 500% after it implemented online registration. And Delaware, another early adopter of online registration, now processes over 80% of new registrations through its DMV, compared to less than 40% nationally. With online registration widespread across the country but still unavailable in a number of states, voting access advocates are expressing concerns that the lack of online voter registration in certain states may depress turnout this year.

 

  • Voter satisfaction, reduced burdens on election officials, and accuracy. According to a 2015 Pew Center report, 13 states highlighted “voter satisfaction” and “reduced burdens on election officials” as the major benefits of their systems, followed closely by cost savings (12 states) and accuracy (11 states). In particular, local election officials praised the improved integrity of voter rolls that results from reduced dependency on illegible handwritten applications.

 

  • Online platforms are secure. Studies have consistently shown that online voter registration systems effectively protect voters’ private information. All states employ safeguards meant to thwart cyberattacks, and, to date, no state has reported a security breach of its online voter registration systems. Encryption, Captcha, and other programs that protect against hacking, routine audit logs, secure networks, unique identifiers, and other strategies help impede unauthorized access. Since none of these security measures can be applied to paper registration forms, seven states pointed to reduced risk of fraud as a key benefit of online voter registration.

Barriers to Online Voter Registration

Though online voter registration offers many benefits and, based on current evidence, poses no significant concerns, either to states or to voters, some advocates have noted barriers in existing online registration systems. These shortcomings are not reasons for voters to avoid online registration; rather, they are reasons for states to expand and improve their existing systems. Barriers include:

  • Driver license requirements. Most online voter registration systems are linked to a state’s DMV website and database. This affiliation improves the system’s technical performance, but it excludes eligible voters who do not have accounts with their state’s DMV from being able to register to vote online. Those excluded are usually citizens without driver licenses or state identification, who are often lower income. In this way, some state online registration systems effectively discriminate along race and economic lines. New York is one such state, and lawmakers in New York are now seeking to make online registration available to all eligible voters. The online voter registration in Delaware, by contrast, was the most expansive in the country as of 2015. Delaware was, and may still be, the only state in which voters may register online without state identification; they may instead supply just their date of birth and zip code.

 

  • The “digital divide.” Despite the internet’s ubiquity in American public life, many households do not have access to fast, reliable internet access. As of last year, 73% of American adults had access to broadband internet at home, leaving many without. Though 79% of white adults have broadband internet at home, only 66% of Black and 61% of Latinx adults do. And while 92% of households earning $75,000 a year or more do, only 56% of households earning less than $30,000 a year have access. Expansions of and improvements to online voter registration systems therefore do not help all Americans equally.

 

  • Inaccessible websites. Not all state online registration websites follow accessibility guidelines for internet users with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Not all state websites are available in multiple languages – Alabama’s website, for example, is only accessible in English. And some states’ websites have failed to function at times, preventing citizens from accessing them.

 

  • Unavailability of online voter registration. Though about 35 states have implemented online voter registration in the last decade, online registration is still unavailable in 9 states that require voters to register to vote.4 In those states, lack of access to a printer or mail delivery makes traditional voter registration methods out of reach for some eligible voters.

Mitigating Barriers to Online Voter Registration

With Americans encouraged to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional methods of voter registration are difficult. Registering to vote online offers some voters an easy and convenient way to sign up. To make online voter registration accessible to all eligible voters, states should ensure that their online voter registration systems meet the following specifications:

  • States should implement online voter registration portals that are independent of their DMVs, to allow voters who are not registered with a DMV to register to vote online.

 

  • States should ensure that their online voter registration websites are accessible to all users, available in multiple languages, and functional at all times.

 

  • All states should allow eligible voters to register online.

More States Should Provide Online Registration, Existing Programs Should be Fully Accessible to All Eligible Voters, and Voters Are Encouraged to Register Online

The expansion of online voter registration over the last decade is a very welcome development, making registering to vote more convenient and accessible. Online registration is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many voters and residents cannot safely visit government offices. The ten remaining states without online voter registration should move immediately to implement online voter registration, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The primary shortcoming of existing online voter registration systems is that they are not accessible to enough eligible voters. States should expand access to online voter registration by making their systems available and accessible to all voters and removing requirements that voters have state identification.

1 North Dakota is the only state without voter registration.

2 The states with online voter registration as of August 2020 are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. New Jersey is in the process of implementing an online registration system, as is Oklahoma, where registered voters may already update their registration information, such as their address, online.

3 Arizona was the first state to implement online voter registration. At the start of 2010, only Arizona, Washington, and Kansas had implemented online voter registration.

4 Those states are Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. As mentioned above, New Jersey and Oklahoma are in the process of implementing online registration systems, though those states’ systems are not fully implemented yet.

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