Cheap And Fast, Online Voter Registration Catches On | KERA News

Cheap And Fast, Online Voter Registration Catches On

May 18, 2015
Originally published on May 22, 2015 12:23 am

Voters in more than half the states will soon be able to register online, rather than filling out a paper form and sending it in.

Twenty states have implemented online voter registration so far, almost all in the past few years. Seven other states and the District of Columbia are now in the process of doing so. That includes Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last Friday requiring the state to allow online voter registration by 2017.

Online voter registration has become so popular because election officials say it's more efficient than a paper-based system, and cheaper.

Voters like it because they can register any time of day from home, said David Becker, director of election initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"What election officials are finding, is they're saving a ton of money, because they're having to process a lot fewer pieces of paper by hand, right before an election, and get that into the system," he said.

Arizona, for example, says it costs the state only 3 cents to register someone online, versus 83 cents on paper.

And there's another reason state election officials like online registration. It can be very difficult to keep voter rolls up to date and accurate, which has raised concerns about voter fraud and caused confusion at the polls. But information submitted online is immediately compared with driver's license or other state databases, and verified.

"If someone puts in 'First Avenue,' instead of 'First Street,' as their address by mistake, and it doesn't match the motor vehicles file, in real time — with the voter still sitting at the screen — they can ask the voter to double check if what they entered was correct," Becker explained, adding that this can avoid a lot of problems on Election Day, especially if the error involves the spelling of the voter's name.

Online voter registration also turns out to be one of the few areas in running elections where many Republicans and Democrats agree.

Louisiana's Republican Secretary of State Tom Schedler said he was skeptical at first. Louisiana was one of the first states to approve online voter registration in 2009.

"Register online? I mean it just was kind of an oxymoron to me. I just was so used to the old system. So I mean, I guess it was more just my confidence level in technology," he said.

But today, Schedler is a huge fan. He said more than 220,000 people have used the system so far, with no reported problems.

"You can go straight online and do it. It takes about two minutes — three minutes max — and it's done," he said.

Still, not everyone is sold on the idea. Florida's bill had strong bipartisan support in the legislature, but Gov. Scott said he signed the measure "with some hesitation." Scott said he was worried about meeting the October 2017 deadline, especially with a presidential election on the way. And his secretary of state, Ken Detzner, told lawmakers last month that he also opposed the bill because it was a massive undertaking.

"You're dealing with the most sensitive part of an election. You're dealing with voter registration systems. And if we do it wrong, we are in a heap of trouble," Detzner said.

Some Republican lawmakers in Texas have also blocked an online registration bill in that state, saying they're worried the system would be vulnerable to cyberattacks.

However, computer experts say that's not a problem as long as certain safeguards are put in place. Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a technology watchdog group, gave this advice: "You want to make sure that you're testing for security while the system is being built and once it's in use. And you want to have a strategy for what happens if there's a failure of the system at a critical moment, like Election Day."

In most cases, voters need to have a driver's license to use the online system, which means states can also require them to show their licenses the first time they appear at the polls as an extra precaution, she said.

For everyone else, registering on paper is still an option.

Becker of Pew Charitable Trusts said one other problem that people were worried about has yet to materialize. Some politicians feared that online registration would favor one political party over the other. But according to Becker, the party breakdown in states using online registration is almost identical to what it was before. Red states are just as red; blue states just as blue.

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Pretty soon, people in more than half the states in the U.S. will no longer have to fill out a piece of paper to register to vote. They'll be able to do it online. Election officials say online voter registration saves money and is more efficient. It also turns out to be one of the few areas in elections where many Republicans and Democrats agree - but not all. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Louisiana's Republican Secretary of State Tom Schedler says at first he was skeptical.

TOM SCHEDLER: Register online - I mean, it just was kind of an oxymoron to me. I was so used to the old system, so, I mean, I guess it was more just my confidence level in technology, I guess.

FESSLER: But today, he's completely sold. Louisiana was one of the first states to approve online voter registration in 2009. Schedler says it's been a huge success. More than 220,000 people have used the system with no reported problems.

SCHEDLER: You can go straight online and do it. It takes about two minutes - three minutes max - and it's done.

FESSLER: And it's that convenience that's led 20 states to implement online voter registration already. Seven other states and the District of Columbia are now in the process of doing the same. Several others are considering the change. David Becker is director of election initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts. He says it's easy for voters...

DAVID BECKER: And what election officials are finding is they're saving a ton of money because they are having to process a lot fewer pieces of paper by hand right before an election and get that into the system.

FESSLER: For example, Arizona says it cost the state three cents to register someone online versus 83 cents on paper, and there's another reason all this is so importance. Right now it's very difficult to keep voter registration rolls up-to-date and accurate, and that's raised concerns about potential fraud. But Becker says information submitted online is immediately compared with state driver's license or other databases and verified.

BECKER: If someone puts in First Avenue instead of First Street as their address by mistake and it doesn't match the motor vehicles file, in real time, with the voter still sitting at the screen, they can ask the voter to double check if what they entered was correct.

FESSLER: And the information can be fixed right there. Still, not everyone's on board. Last week, Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, signed a bipartisan bill calling for online registration, but he said he did so with some hesitation. Scott said he was worried about meeting the 2017 deadline, especially with the presidential election right before. Scott's secretary of state, Ken Detzner, told lawmakers last month that he also opposed the bill because it was such a massive undertaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEN DETZNER: You're dealing with the most sensitive part of an election. You're dealing with voter registration systems, and if we do it wrong, we are in a heap of trouble.

FESSLER: And some Texas lawmakers have also blocked an online registration bill, saying they're worried about cyberattacks, although computer experts say that's not a problem as long as certain safeguards are put in place. Pamela Smith is president of Verified Voting, a watchdog group.

PAMELA SMITH: You want to make sure that you're testing for security while the system is being built and once it's in use. And you want to have a strategy for what happens if there's a failure of the system at a critical moment, like Election Day.

FESSLER: So far, that hasn't been a problem. Neither has something else that politicians feared - that online registration would favor one party over the other. Becker of Pew says so far the party breakdown is almost identical to what it is under the paper system - red states are just as red, blue states just as blue. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.