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The Problem with Online Voter Registration

Online voter registration is taking hold across the country. Election officials recognize that online registration cuts costs, increases the accuracy of voter rolls and eases their administrative burdens. Voters like the ease and convenience of registering or updating their information online, while advocates appreciate the boost in voter registration numbers.

But there is a fundamental problem. Virtually every system adopted by states across the country leaves out a significant and important part of the population – citizens who don’t have a driver’s license or non-driver’s ID with a signature on file. In other words, the states are imposing a restrictive ID requirement on voter registration online.

As a result of this limitation, millions of eligible voters who lack the proper ID can’t participate. For example, many young people are left out since they are much less likely than the general population to have a driver’s license. And, ironically, young people are also much less likely to be registered to vote! Moreover, the Brennan Center for Justice and others have shown that seniors, people of color, and people with disabilities are especially impacted. These circumstances raise concerns about voter discrimination, plain and simple.

It is time for the progressive community to wake up and fight for online registration that is free, fair and accessible to all eligible Americans. The circumstances pushing online registration ahead – low cost, greater accuracy – mean that it is the wave of the future. More and more, online registration will be the primary means of registering. And this means that excluding millions of Americans because they don’t have a driver’s license or a non-driver’s ID with a signature on file will be even a bigger problem.

Voting rights advocates across the country have been fighting against restrictive voter ID laws for years now, and great progress against such voter suppression tactics has been made. Why then do many groups support online voter registration systems at the state level that are restricted to people with a driver's license or a state-issued ID card? One argument is that some online registration is better than none at all. Fair enough. But with nearly a majority of states moving toward online systems, isn’t it time for online voter registration for all? Now that the benefits of online voter registration have been firmly established, we must ensure that every eligible citizen can participate.

Solutions are available that will open online voter registration to all. The key is to ensure that the voter registration applicant can “sign” the online form.

States should enable eligible voters to legally attest that the information they enter online is accurate by using a computerized mark, similar to the way in which Internet users can “sign” contracts, credit card invoices, banking and other transactions online. These voters could then be required to provide a “wet” signature when they visit a polling place for the first time. This method is similar to the Help America Vote Act’s (HAVA) provisions for first-time voters who register by mail.

Another way to increase the accessibility of online voter registration is to utilize existing technology to capture and accept an electronic version of the registrant’s signature. This option would enable voters both to register online and provide a signature instantaneously. In addition, the use of mobile devices like tablets and smartphones would not only increase access directly, it could significantly assist organizations like the League that conduct voter registration drives and help mitigate the problem of uneven access to computers and the Internet.

It is important to remember that many individuals have out-of-date voter registration records, often due to recent changes of address or changes in their name, especially women, about 90 percent of whom change their name when changing marital status. An efficient online registration must allow individuals to update their voter registration record to reflect changes. We are, after all, a very mobile society, and updating addresses online would significantly improve the accuracy of voter registration lists.

At a time when Americans can conduct almost any transaction accurately and quickly online – from signing contracts to paying bills and banking – our election systems should join the 21st Century through online voter registration for all.