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.2 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.